The film writer on noir, blogs vs. zines, and the death of the VCR
Published: November 17, 2010
Mike White with Mike Faloon
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Mike White often has to inform people who stumble across his web presence that he’s not that Mike White, the writer/director/actor best known for Chuck and Buck and School of Rock. The confusion is somewhat understandable given that he, too, is best known for his connection to movies, through his long-running zine Cashiers du Cinemart. Punning on the name of revered French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, the Detroit-based White and his contributors (including Baltimore indie-film avatar Skizz Cyzyk) eschewed art cinema and took seriously film adaptations of pulp crime writing, deconstructions of film-nerd sacred cows such as Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas, celebrations of obscure directors such as John Paizs and Monte Hellman, and other explorations of marginalized cinema. Founded in 1994 when White was a recent University of Michigan grad, CdC ceased print publication in 2008 but continues online (impossiblefunky.com) and lives on via the new Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection. White comes to Baltimore to read from and discuss the collection Nov. 19, but first he called City Paper from a stop in Philadelphia to talk about noir, Gremlins, and the death of the VCR.
City Paper: One whole section of the book is largely devoted to CdC articles, mostly written by you, on the many film adaptations of noir writers such as David Goodis and James Ellroy. Which came first, your love of movies or your love of noir?
Mike White: Probably the love of movies first, then noir in particular as I went on. I love all types of genres, but nothing satisfies like a good noir picture. The first time I saw The Maltese Falcon, I was probably 20. I decried the old movies, “Oh, it’s in black and white, I’m really not interested.” I grew up in the ’70s, so it was all color all the time for me other than some Woody Allen films, and Maltese Falcon just kind of blew my mind. After that it was like, yeah, I need to see more of this stuff. That was my gateway drug into film noir.
CP: I had no idea that the work of a writer like Goodis could be connected to so many films across so many decades. Why do you think noir writers get adapted so often?
MW: They deal with so many common themes, and I love the anti-heroes in so many of the books, and I think that translates pretty well for filmmakers. And they seem to kind of fill a gap in every generation of filmmakers. There were the early gangster films [in the ’30s], and then they were there for the French filmmakers in the ’50s, and the French filmmakers informed a lot of the filmmakers in the ’70s, and so they kind of dug back into it.
CP: And there was a big neo-noir boom in the ’80s and early ’90s as well. I imagine it helps that it’s the kind of material that’s easy to do on the cheap.
MW: Exactly, and they’re so character-driven too. What was the one . . . I’m blanking . . . is it [1990’s] After Dark, My Sweet? With Jason Patric? That to me is still Jason Patric’s best performance. I know a lot people love him in Rush, but he was so good in that.
CP: So what got you actually writing about this stuff and bothering to put it in a zine in the first place?
MW: What really kind of got me going—well, there were a lot of different things. One of the things was finding other people’s zines, going to Tower Records and picking up a copy of Teenage Rampage or Shock Cinema or there was one called Asian Eye out of Toronto, and reading about these movies that I’d never heard of before. And just the passion of the writers really came through in the reviews of these films. It was like, Oh my god, I have to see this, I have to track these down.
My whole thing was, so here I am in Ann Arbor reading about these movies in this zine written by this guy in Toronto. What about some poor schmuck in Iowa who needs to read about The Big Combo or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or these other movies that are out there that people really weren’t talking about? And I was like, well, I’m getting all this good information, so I need to give other people good information as well.
CP: This would have been in the mid-’90s, pre-web, when you couldn’t just type a title or name into Google and expect dozens of hits.
MW: That was back when I used to pore through Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever and just be like, “What is this film? What person was in this? OK, I want to find every movie this person was in.” And this was back when Blockbuster would have that big movie catalog, and I’d be like, “OK, I’m fascinated with [character actor] Timothy Carey, I need to find out more movies with him. I have to find more.” There was no one complete source, there was no Internet Movie Database, so it was, how can I find out about this stuff?
CP: Blogs have pretty much replaced zines at this point. Do you think of that as an upgrade?
MW: There are a lot of blogs I really appreciate, like Cinebeats or Paracinema, blogs where they really go back and appreciate the older films. They might take a current film and then dissect it, and talk about why you like this movie, why this movie is good, or here are other films that were similar to it in the past. But then there are so many blogs that, for god’s sake, I know Spider-Man 4 was cancelled, I don’t need to read about it 25 times via Twitter and Facebook and blogs.
When the book was about to come out, I was trying to set up a blog tour where every day a different blogger would write about it every day. But one of my ground rules—this was right when Inception came out—was I am not going to talk to any blogger that has Inception on their front page. (laughs) I went to 60 film blogs, and 45 of them had Inception on their front page. It’s just like, really, you too? Can’t you wait maybe a month and digest a movie a little bit and then talk about it? But you go to a preview or go the first weekend, and you’re not saying anything any other writer isn’t saying about the film. You’re not bringing anything to the table.
CP: One section of Impossibly Funky features articles in which writers talk about the ways films such as 8mm and Catwoman changed from their often very interesting original scripts into the much less interesting films that eventually got made. It’s fascinating to think about these versions of movies that exist only on the page and in the various readers’ heads.
MW: I had a little event last night, and one of my writers, Chris Cummins, was here, and his review of the early version of Gremlins [in Impossibly Funky] is remarkable to me. It was still written by Chris Columbus, but it was a complete horror film. What it became onscreen was so different. Even though it was still pretty dark and twisted, in the early drafts it was just a full-out horror film, and it became the lovable, marketable Gizmo and all of that. (laughs) It was like, really? Cause this script was really horrible—in a good way.
Yeah, when I went to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I was walking out going, “Wow, that really wasn’t too bad.” And my wife was like, “What the fuck are you talking about? Why did you drag me to this movie, it was awful.” And I was like, “Well, you didn’t read the scripts, cause the early scripts were way worse.” (laughs)
CP: So what’s next for you, writing-wise?
MW: I’ve got an article in the new issue of Paracinema all about films starring talking genitals. I still wanna find those weird, niche subgenres where I’ve been looking at my video shelves and going, God, I’ve got a lot of movies with talking genitals in them. Then there are other ones, like one story I’ve been wanting to write for a long time is about all the Indian and Turkish interpretations of the Superman story.
CP: You started CdC to bring more attention to obscure films and filmmakers, and more information is available than ever before now thanks to the web, but most of the stuff you wrote about remains fairly obscure. Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop got a fancy Criterion Collection reissue, but most moviegoers still have no idea who he is and couldn’t find his films if they wanted to.
MW: Right, like, I think Cockfighter is out on DVD but it’s out of print. Flight of the Fury isn’t out on DVD still, and that’s one of my favorite films of his. Back Door to Hell came out on DVD and I had no idea. Six months ago I was doing a search and got “You might like this,” and I was like, Holy shit, why didn’t anyone tell me about this?
I can just hope that somebody somewhere doesn’t know about this [stuff] and, “Oh, I’m gonna rent Two-Lane Blacktop,” or maybe they’ll go out and find a VHS copy of Flight of the Fury—and still have a VCR. I can’t believe how many people these days don’t have VCRs in their houses. It just makes me really sad.
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