Sunday, October 3, 2010

An Impossibly Funky Interview with Mike White

This is the 50th interview on The Cathode Ray Mission. Wow! Sure doesn't seem like we could have gotten so many people to talk to us. Some more then once! Poor souls. For the 50th interview I had the great honor of talking to Mike White of Cashiers du Cinemart. Cashiers du Cinemart is a magazine and a webzine about independent film, published and edited by White. The print version began in 1994 as a fanzine and evolved over the late 1990s into a magazine format. The title is a parody of French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma. It ended publication in 2008, but continues on as a webzine. Recently White released Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection.

When did Cashiers du Cinemart begin? And what were it's origins?

Mike White: I started writing about film when I was in college. At the time, the University of Michigan was far more of a film *theory* school than a film *making* school. I began learning how to read a film and enjoyed the various interpretations that writers (like Tania Modleski, Robin Wood, Laura Mulvey) had of the same subject matter. Moreover, I enjoyed jumping into the fray and putting my own spin on things. I got so into the groove of writing about movies that, after graduation, I didn't know what to do with myself. Combine that with a crappy job with long, unsupervised hours and you've got the making of either a domestic terrorist or a fanzine writer. I opted for the latter path.

How did the book Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection first come about?

White: A couple of things brought me to Impossibly Funky. First, Clint Johns, the zine distribution guy at Tower Records -- a prince among men -- had suggested doing a book years ago. This was around the time that some zinesters were coming out with collections and I contemplated throwing my hat into that ring. I wrote up a proposal and sent it away. By the time I should have gotten an answer, I got notice that Tower had gone into Chapter 11. Cue "Sad Trombone" music. The idea stuck with me and a few folks told me I should do a "best of" issue of the zine to catch people up that hadn't read the early issues. However, instead of doing another issue of the zine I finally folded around 2007 when my bank account was empty, my credit cards were maxed, and my garage was filled with copies of my last issue -- a few of my major distributors and many of the mom & pop stores I had relied on all closed their doors between issues 14 and 15. The book idea stuck around and I finally sat down with Mike Thompson (a long-time CdC-contributor) and Lori Higgins (a friend, proofreader, and fan) where we fleshed out the first version of the book. The rest, they say, is history.

There are interviews ranging from people like author James Ellroy, Bruce Campbell, Dr. Demento, Crispin Glover and Taylor Negron. What were some of your favorites?

White: Our firsts always are our favorites, aren't they? In that case it was Bruce Campbell who took time from his busy schedule to help out a zine from his old home town. That really put the wind in my sails. I've had great fun talking to everyone I interviewed, even James Ellroy who kept having me turn off my tape recorder. I think readers will enjoy the interview I did with Keith Gordon most of all. Articulate, open, and funny as hell, talking to him was a huge treat.

Can you tell us a little about your love of the film Black Shampoo?

White: "He's bad, he's mean, he's a loving machine. But when he's mad, he's mean, he's a killing machine." That tag line along with the image of Mr. Jonathan (John Daniels) wielding a chainsaw on the back of the video box took my friends and I by surprise; almost as much as the movie itself. Back in high school my friends and I tried to take in all manner of movies but we particularly found a love of blaxploitation films. I think it was a combination of the action, the clothes, the music, and the low-budget aesthetic. Black Shampoo was one of our first forays into blaxploitation and it was our favorite. Though it's a relatively straight-forward story of boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy kills mobsters with a chainsaw and pool cue to win back girl, we found that it worked on many levels. And, the more we watched it, the more we loved it. Maybe love isn't a strong enough word. We would have boiled bunnies for that movie.

I'm a big fan of the regional filmmakers of the '70's and '80's. Filmmakers such as Bill Rebane, Don Dohler, Donn Davison and Charles B. Pierce. Do you see such filmmakers as these a thing of the past? And do you have any personal favorites from that time period?

White: I've got to plead ignorance on this one. I can't really recall much regional filmmaking going on around Detroit except for Sam Raimi, Josh Becker, Scott Spiegel, et. al. and those boys had the good sense to get the fuck outta Dodge as soon as they could. I don't know if it's just a Detroit thing or not but the Motor City isn't overly supportive of "smaller" artists. If you go away and make it big then we'll laud you and say that we knew you when but try to make it in Motown and you're facing a major uphill battle. In my own case, I've gotten a lot of support for my zine, video projects, and book from outside of Detroit (especially in Baltimore) but there's not a lot of love for the homeboy in his home town.

Cashiers du Cinemart championed the independent film. Have there been any recent independent films that you've really be blown away by?

White: I've not seen a whole lot of Indie fare lately and, truthfully, I don't count most of the stuff that comes out to art house theaters as "independent" film. Most movies that have the Sundance seal of approval also carry the stink of Hollywood with them. I like my independent movies truly independent, thank you very much. No big stars, no big budgets. Give me a movie that expresses the love of filmmaking or that has a story that needs to be told.

Getting off my soap box now, I'll say that my favorite films I saw in 2010 have been a couple of documentaries about films and filmmaking; Clay Westervelt's Popatopalis and Michael Stephenson's Best Worst Movie.

Cashiers du Cinemart featured articles about unmade or various versions of films such as Alien 3, Superman Returns and Dune. How did you go about finding the info on many of these films?

White: The short answer is "dogged research." The longer answer involved tracking down screenplays and magazine articles, spending a lot of time and money on ebay, making phone calls; everything short of banging on doors. I wrote the majority of my Alien 3 piece when the internet was still in its nascent stage so all of my research was offline. When it came to the Superman Returns piece, there had already been a lot written about the tawdry tale of the film coming to the silver screen but I didn't want to do a hack's job of quoting other people's writing. Instead, I tracked down everything on my own and did my best to uncover some of the screenplays that were only rumored to exist. At times I had to resort to my patented brand of wheedling and chicanery.

Cashiers du Cinemart is known for openly mocking the basic tenets of film criticism. Do you feel that you've had an impact on the way film is criticized?

White: I could only hope to have that kind of influence but I still imagine myself as being as effective as spitting into the wind.

Do you see any change in way films are reviewed now as opposed to the days of Siskel & Ebert?

White: My friend and partner-in-crime Mike Thompson always refers to Siskel & Ebert as "the thumbs" and I always found this appropriate. They reduced themselves to their appendages. At the end of the day, their brand of televised film criticism came down to a binary system, invalidating the nuances of good film criticism. I don't see a lot of today's brand of film criticism getting away from that cockeyed up/down view of reviews. It's easy to say "I love it" or "I hated it." Give me the reasons why -- and make them good. Or, better yet, tell me the qualities of this mediocre genre film that are really interesting. Film criticism shouldn't be a series of stars, a thumb, or 140-character blurb on twitter. I'm not saying that there's a minimum character count for good criticism but there should definitely be a minimum thought count rather than a gut up or down. If you're critiquing films you need to do your job and put some thought into things. Otherwise, you're just a film reviewer.

With so many film blogs and websites like Rotten Tomatoes, do you see critics like Roger Ebert becoming a thing of the past?

White: I could throw some tomatoes at Tomatoes but really I should take aim at the people that base their opinion on a number or, worse, those film reviewers that use that same number as their premise for a review. "This movie must be bad because it only got a 35 on Rotten Tomatoes." Again, I encourage people to think for themselves. Sure, it feels good to have your opinion validated by others but you need to have an opinion in the first place to really get the satisfaction you seek. Likewise, it's okay to go against the flow as long as you follow your head and your heart. There are innumerable movies that undoubtedly have high Rotten Tomato scores that I can stand and vice versa. That's fine by me. I know why I like or dislike things and can usually defend them. Those indefensible movies that I know are bad on some level that I love all the same fall into the category of "guilty pleasures".

There have been times that I wished Roger Ebert was a thing of the past -- especially when he was on "At the Movies" giving away the endings to new releases before I'd had a chance to see them. I respect what Ebert has done outside of television and I know that there's not going to be a good televised version of film criticism for the public. People want thumbs, stars, hearts, ribbons, bones, tomatoes, etc.

Any advice for all us film bloggers?

White: I'd like to count myself amongst the film blogger community so this advice is to my peers and myself -- slow down and think about things before blurting out something on your blog. And, don't forget to proof read. Noun/verb agreement and punctuation still mean something, even in the 21st century.

Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection
Now Available!

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