This is the second part of my two-part interview with Sara Voorhees, author of The Lumiere Affair. The first part was published about two weeks ago. The book comes out this week.
This book is excellent.
I've really enjoyed doing the interview by email with this funny, sharp, clever writer and since we seem to have good repartee — as some writers have commented upon — we may be doing some type of writing or work together in the future.
Okay, on with the second part of this two-part interview:
Scott Butki: Is this book the first of a series?
Sara: Only in my head at the moment. I would like to finish Nattie's story. We'll see what the future brings.
Scott: Which do you find more enjoyable and more satisfying – writing a novel or writing about film?
Sara: I was an only child for many years (siblings much older than I am), so I have a very active fantasy life. As the story and the characters were evolving for Lumière, I carried them around with me, woke up thinking about them, hoped things would work out in their lives, and could hardly wait to get to the computer to find out What Would Happen to them. It's what catharsis is all about: experiencing someone else's experience as if it were your own. In a movie, this evolution happens in a couple of hours. Writing a novel extends the catharsis for months and months.
Scott: What question are you secretly hoping I will ask you?
Sara: I think I'd like you to ask me about the impact of movies on our culture — it's an issue every film critic and moviemaker and parent and citizen should think about. Nobody loves movies more than I do – movies can transport us into marvelous places, both emotionally and intellectually. We always learn something when we see a movie – sometimes it's good and pure and intentional on the part of the director, who wants us to know about what it was like to be gay in the '60s, or how one single bullet can alter the lives of a hundred people in every corner of the world or what it feels like to suffer on either side of the Middle Eastern conflict. But even in a movie that seems benign we're learning something that may not be conducive to a happy life or harmonious society – romantic comedies that tell us love is about romance, action movies that teach us to resolve conflict like five year olds.
Even animated cartoons can teach us to be afraid of people who look different from us. That is insidious learning, and it's happening all the time. There's a lot of talk at the moment about the effects of movie violence on the minds and behavior of our children. It's a dialogue that comes and goes – usually it comes after a disaster and goes when people are tired of thinking about it. But we should keep talking about it until we come up with a solution to the problem – until we agree to include a media literacy curriculum in our schools, the same way basic grammar was introduced into the public school curriculum 100 years ago.
The Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) is one organization that is working hard to make that happen. I recommend that anyone interested in this issue check it out. Because — in view of our Constitution — we cannot dictate what directors can and can't put in their movies. So it's up to all of us to educate ourselves about the moving image so we can make intelligent choices, so we understand what a movie (or a commercial or a TV show) is actually teaching us that we may not be aware of. Until it becomes a part of every child's education, parents have to assume that responsibility for their children, and talk with them about what they're seeing. I might have gone overboard with my kids in that area: my daughter says she spent so much time in movie theaters and talking about movies, she grew up believing that the basic food groups were popcorn, Raisinettes and Sprite.
Scott: I'm working on getting an interview with Roger Ebert, who, along with David Edelstein, are on my must-read lists. Do you have any questions you'd like to suggest I ask Ebert?
Sara: I've asked Roger Ebert a lot of questions over the years. What I'd like you to ask him now is how he's feeling. I hope he's going to recover from his current unpleasantness and return to us intact. He is the father of us all.
Scott: Most journalists I know have at least one person who they still really want to interview someday. Who would that be for you?
Sara: That's easy: Katherine Hepburn. Alas, too late. She was the model for every woman who ever dared to be more than What Was Expected. I also have never spoken to Jack Nicholson, although I had an interesting encounter with him before the Oscars a few years ago. The ceremony was still at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that year, and when an actor came to the theater to rehearse his/her segment for the Oscars, he was given a big fruit basket in gratitude – the kind that come piled high with fruit and wrapped in yellow cellophane. I was going through the back door of the theater to get my credentials at the same moment Nicholson was going out the door, carrying his basket of fruit. I can only imagine what was on his mind, but he burst through the door and caught me right in the eye with a banana that was jutting through the cellophane. Our conversation consisted entirely of expletives.
Scott: Is it weird to be the one interviewed instead of the one doing the interviewing?
Sara: Very. It's a lot harder to be on this side of the equation. I had a wonderful interview once with Oprah in Santa Fe, and she told me that since she was eighteen, she's been on camera more than she hasn't. It was a slight exaggeration, but her point is clear: she's more comfortable in front of a camera than she is behind it. I was amazed by that. I have never been comfortable in front of a camera. When I do live TV I stutter and stammer, unless I have a script. I've done the Oscars and Cannes and live shots from movie theaters around the country. I am always a wreck, before and after. And during. I've never gotten over that. I used to stand in the long line of journalists at the Oscars and listen to other people — David Moss from Cleveland and Scott Patrick from Denver — talking to the camera as if it were their pal, and just be amazed. It's a gift.
Scott: What is your favorite film and why?
Sara: I may be too fickle to answer that question. And the range of movies I love is impossibly broad. This month I loved Blades of Glory — a movie with no redeeming social or intellectual value. It was total silliness and I laughed myself sick. I was also completely blown away by the German film The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for best foreign film this year. It's a movie that made me realize how lucky we are — so far — in America, to have a Constitution that protects us from our baser instincts, and how hard it would be, in a world where your neighbor could be your worst enemy, to put yourself on the line for a principle you believe in. How can a person have a favorite movie when the choices are so varied? However, I can tell you the movie that had the greatest impact on me… and that remains the same to this day… was a film with Sophia Loren and Charleton Heston called El Cid. I saw it at an age when I was just beginning to question the true meaning of courage and loyalty… of what it meant to love another human being, of what motivated war, and the power of forgiveness. It molded a lot of my most important ideas about life in general.
A few years ago, Martin Scorsese had it restored and released it in the theaters — apparently it was an important movie for him, too — and it was just as powerful as it was the first time around.
Scott: What is your favorite non-fiction book about film?
Sara: Besides How to Watch a Movie, which is out of print, and I have no idea who wrote it, but it'd filled with information about the tools of movie making and written in a way that your average moviegoer can undestand.
I also love autobiographies. Charles Grodin's It would Be So Nice if You Weren't Here is a very funny book about being a second-level star in movies. I just finished Gene Wilder's autobiography Kiss Me Like A Stranger, which had the most astounding honesty I've read in any autobiography since Julia Phillip's scathing Hollywood memoir You'll Never Each Lunch In This Town Again. I love autobiographies, because when people sit down to write about their own lives, it all becomes a story: the horrible, tragic events and the wonderful triumphant moments – they all form the substance of what a life is. It's good for us to step out of the immediate scene we're living and see our own lives that way.
Scott: Who, besides yourself, is your favorite movie critic? Who is your least favorite?
Sara: I would never put myself in the category of my favorite critics. But again, how can you choose a favorite from the broad range of critics writing about film today? There are print critics I admire – like Roger Ebert and Terry Lawson, who writes for the Detroit Free Press, and Jay Carr, who was the critic for the Boston Globe for many years. Those men are marvelous writers, and their insights about film give us all perspective on our culture and our personal lives. I wish there were more women writing about film – Sheila Benson left The Los Angeles Times just when she was beginning to demonstrate how a woman's perspective can be essential.
I'm on the board of the Broadcast Film Critics' Association, and we have 210 TV, radio, and internet critics in our membership who are all so interesting and varied, you could never choose. There are critics in this country who are as entertaining as the movies they review… some are esoteric in their views of film… some have both feet firmly in the popular culture… some are writing for other critics and not for audiences. Some critics are writing from a specific perspective – religious, satirical, maternal, technical. Every one of them is valid. Every one of them has something to say to someone in the audience. Variety! There's a reason that is the most-read magazine in the movie industry.