Review: Owen Gleiberman Discusses His Book, "Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies


Owen Gleiberman

Owen Gleiberman keeps it freaky.

Nationally known film critic Owen Gleiberman appeared in his hometown -- specifically, the University of Michigan’s Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery -- on the evening of December 7 to talk about his book, Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ann Arbor plays a key supporting role in Gleiberman’s story. Gleiberman moved to Treetown with his family when he was about five, and he grew up during the '60s and '70s -- which happened to be the heyday for U-M’s campus film societies. Gleiberman wrote about film while a student at Pioneer High, and he continued to do so for The Michigan Daily as a college student.

“I don’t know if i would have ever wanted to become a film critic, or a film buff, or everything this book is about if it hadn’t been for Ann Arbor, and the way this place kind of nurtured me,” Gleiberman said before reading a passage from his book on Wednesday night.

But in addition to chronicling his descent into movie madness, Movie Freak also, Gleiberman noted, turned out to be a kind of valentine to analog culture.

“To be against or hostile to something like digital culture would be on some level kind of silly,” Gleiberman said. “And I get that. It would be like being against the automobile or the telephone back then. And yet, I think we are in the midst of a huge upheaval, a paradigm shift in the whole culture, the whole world, and I think to say that we’re going through the growing pains of it right now would be an understatement. I mean, it really feels cataclysmic. I don’t think we would have Trump if it wasn’t for the internet.

"I think the reality of our lives more and more is growing out of digital culture, so when I think about being in Ann Arbor, growing up in Ann Arbor, and being lucky enough to grow up in a place like this in the 1970s, I think of that as an oasis, kind of a sweet spot of analog culture, in that Ann Arbor had all the qualities then that it had now. This wonderful openness and creativity. At the same time, I think there was something about that culture that felt easier to navigate, warmer, more inclusive, more connected.”

Of course, digital culture has played no small role in journalism’s current struggle to survive, economically. Gleiberman, after being Entertainment Weekly’s lead film critic for more than 20 years, was laid off in 2014.

He started work on his book, became a reviewer for the BBC, and in May of this year, he became a film critic for Variety.

U-M professional Daniel Herwitz asked Gleiberman what distinguishes a professional critic from a person who engages others in conversation about film.

“Well, actually, I would say that that is, in a sense, all a film critic is,” Gleiberman said. “I would say, if you ask the question, ‘Well, what gives you the right?’ … The only that gives you the right, or the thing that makes somebody a professional at this is that they do it better. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, but I just mean that, if film criticism is a form of conversation, just the same way that sports commentary, maybe, is a form of conversation, or political opinion writing, professional film critics are the people who’ve earned the privilege of doing it because we do it with a certain flair. We do it with a certain insight.”

Gleiberman -- who now lives in New York City with his wife and two young daughters – also pushed back against the notion of viewing critics as take-down artists.

“I think those stereotypes are very much still with us,” said Gleiberman. “And the whole idea that there’s something almost misanthropic about wanting to be a critic. For me, my desire formed my freshman year [at U-M]. … I discovered Pauline Kael’s writing and became a kind of instant groupie for her. I wanted to do what she did. All of that was about something very positive and very down-to-earth.

"When I saw a movie like ‘Nashville’ or Brian de Palma’s ‘Carrie,’ I became so obsessed with these films that I wanted to shout about them to the world and have a dialogue about them to the world. I wanted to tell everybody, not just, ‘These are great. Go see these movies.’ I wanted to tell people why they were great, and explain it to them.”

Gleiberman, dressed in blue jeans, a black shirt, and a black blazer, went on to talk about the enormous role Kael played in his professional life. At the time when Kael was retiring in the late '70s, Gleiberman, then a college student at U-M, wrote her a fan letter -- and he was shocked and amazed when she responded.

“She was the rock star of The New Yorker,” Gleiberman said. “She was the rock star of criticism. There were people who got the New Yorker magazine, who subscribed to it, who’d go to the newsstand to pick up that week’s issue to see what Pauline said about a movie. She got people addicted to her opinions and her writing, and that defined film criticism for me.

"She allowed you to almost see a movie a second time, but through her perceptions, her insights, her excitement about it. It was not just a conversation about a movie, but the ultimate conversation. And one of the qualities of her writing that no other film critic had in this way was, she was an intensely psychological writer. She was a world class shrink. And as I got to know her, I discovered, she was a frighteningly perceptive person with an almost laser-like ability to look at anyone and size them up.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.