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Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies


Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies

It's fitting that this review's publication follows, by a few days, the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, for even those with only a casual interest in film find themselves drawn to this celebration of the cinematic art. For more than 30 years, some 24 of them at Entertainment Weekly, beginning with the magazine's birth in 1990, Owen Gleiberman has worked as one of America's best-known film critics. MOVIE FREAK is his refreshingly revealing memoir of that tenure and an incisive look into the mind of a man who transformed a passion for movies into a deeply meaningful career.

Gleiberman's self-portrait is as candid as his critical sensibility is well-honed. His father, a physician in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a "worldly and ruthlessly intelligent man, but also a hardass and an Olympic-level cheapskate," character traits that contributed to a marriage that was a "nest of codependent misery," and provided an equally love-starved environment for Owen and his two brothers. But in that emotional desert, Eli Gleiberman's wildly inappropriate decision to expose his nine-year-old son to drive-in showings of movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Boston Strangler in 1968 lit the spark that flamed into Owen's lifelong love affair with movies.

"[Gleiberman's] writing is a paradigm of concise eloquence, a tribute to the legacy of serious critics and to the intelligence of an audience he believes appreciates thoughtful criticism."

At times, that affection manifested itself in twisted ways, as Gleiberman frankly confesses his affinity for the porn movies he discovered as a teenager at the Erotic Art Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He also reveals an ill-advised and nearly disastrous experiment with sadomasochistic sex and drugs in the chapter starkly entitled "Why It's Important for a Film Critic to Date at Least One Sexually Unhinged Cokehead." Until, at age 43, he met his wife, he describes himself as a serial monogamist, a "debauched repetitive cycle that saw no end," as his relationships failed, with depressing regularity, precisely at the four-month mark. These and other glimpses into Gleiberman's psyche allow us to understand him as a human being, not merely a hyperintellectual criticism machine.

Gleiberman spent his college years at the University of Michigan, steeping himself in film and honing his skills as a writer on the student-run Michigan Daily. Thanks to his friendship with iconic New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, he landed a job as a movie reviewer for The Boston Phoenix, where he spent most of the 1980s. He makes no secret of his admiration for Kael, but their relationship cooled when he drifted from the ranks of her acolytes --- the "Paulettes" --- critics he derides for the way they "blended the assertion of fearless opinion with hidden subservience to the mind of Pauline."

His abandonment of the Kael cult reflects Gleiberman's intense discomfort with the herd mentality he argues repeatedly and with vehemence here afflicts the world of contemporary film criticism. It's a phenomenon that's only intensified, paradoxically, as the volume of criticism on the Internet has exploded. With the release of Apollo 13 in 1995 to near unanimous critical acclaim, for example, one of Gleiberman's EW colleagues coined the name "Media Mike" as a metaphor for those cultural events where a certain kind of received wisdom serves to snuff out dissenting voices. While rejecting the label of contrarian, Gleiberman admits to an attraction to films that were "dark, weird, violent, intense, and out of the mainstream," to the point where they occupied their own slightly dubious category at the magazine: "The Movies Owen Likes."

When it comes to specific films, Gleiberman expansively shares both his loves (Nashville, Manhunter and Blue Velvet and most of the work of Oliver Stone) and hates (Pretty Woman, The Lord of the Rings and Home Alone, along with just about any films from revered directors Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pedro Almodóvar). "I became a critic," Gleiberman writes, "because in some adolescent art-loving egomaniacal but earnest way, I yearned to tell the world what I thought." (emphasis his). He never shrinks from doing so here, and that's what makes this such a refreshing book, however violently you may disagree with his assessment of the numerous films he revisits.

Readers looking for an insider's view of critic junkets or film festivals like Sundance and Cannes will find it here. Gleiberman also excels at describing the choppy seas of corporate and editorial politics he had to navigate at Entertainment Weekly, ending with his layoff in April 2014. Despite the letter grades the magazine demanded, he always saw himself as much more than a consumer rater. His writing is a paradigm of concise eloquence, a tribute to the legacy of serious critics and to the intelligence of an audience he believes appreciates thoughtful criticism.

And somewhere among that audience in a movie theater in Houston or Harrisburg, a teenager waits for the lights to dim and for the transporting experience of a new movie to begin. Like Owen Gleiberman, she longs to taste the "sheer existential bliss of leaving yourself behind to merge with whatever's taking place on the screen." Perhaps that same teenager dreams of communicating her love of movies to the world, the way Gleiberman has done so generously all his adult life. If so, she would do well to steep herself in the story he shares, with that same generosity of spirit, in this captivating book.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 3, 2016

Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies
by Owen Gleiberman

  • Publication Date: February 23, 2016
  • Genres: Entertainment, Memoir, Movies, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316382965
  • ISBN-13: 9780316382960