|What could be better than getting paid to watch movies?|
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HOWIE Movshovitz occupies an empty table at the Tattered Cover LoDo. Lost in thought, he pays scant attention to patrons lining up for their morning espresso. But people notice him. “Hey,” they whisper, “isn’t that Howie Movshovitz?”
Movshovitz’s portfolio overflows like an oversized container of hot buttered popcorn. The film critic for Colorado Public Radio contributes features on National Public Radio, directs film education at UCD’s College of Arts & Media and is artistic director of Denver’s Silent Movie Festival.
One of two faculty leaders at the Telluride Film Festival’s Student Symposium, the former Denver Post film reviewer curates the monthly Tattered Cover-CPR film series and was instrumental in establishing the popular Starz FilmCenter.
Movshovitz possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of films, directors and movements (French New Wave, Italian neorealism, etc.) that puts the hard-core film aficionado to shame.
Many journalists covet his job. After all, what could be better than getting paid to watch movies? The comment elicits a grin from the mustached object of these professional fantasies.
About 10 years after joining KCFR, Movshovitz asked CPR president Max Wycisk why he beat out all the other applicants for the position. Lots of people wanted to be the film critic, Wycisk told him, but Movshovitz was the only one who wanted to do the work.
Film criticism requires much more than a brief plot summary, positive (or negative) assessments of the director and actors followed by the perfunctory “thumbs up, thumbs down.” One must be fluent in every aspect of the art form.
Howie Movshovitz speaks the language of films like a native.
Take his CPR review of “The Great Gatsby,” based F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful novel of the 1920s. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.
“One of the best ideas the French New Wave film directors of the late 1950s and 1960s brought to the movies was that respectful, so-called faithful adaptations of literary classics can be a lousy recipe for films,” Movshovitz says.
You have to listen to the review in its entirety — including Art Deco’s adept distillation of the Roaring Twenties and how movies and novels are not the same — to get the full picture.
“I hope people find my reviews interesting,” Movshovitz tells the IJN. “I don’t ask that they believe it, just that they find it interesting.
“I always describe doing film reviews as the first statement in the conversation.”
SIMILAR to Jay Gatsby, Howie Movshovitz celebrates the present moment yet waxes nostalgic for a past when audiences sat mesmerized in front of gigantic screens in darkened movie theaters.
In the age of DVDs, Blue-ray, computer streaming and hand-held devices, he vastly prefers the original cinematic experience to today’s popular, visually condensed formats.
He mentions a joke Billy Crystal cracked a few years ago at the Oscars about watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on a cell phone. Once a laughable absurdity, it’s a virtual reality.
Movshovitz, who reviews films at both press and public screenings, says “more and more distributors send out DVDs. For a long time I wouldn’t watch DVDs because I think movies should be seen big.
“I have a video projector and screen at home, which gives me the feeling of size,” he says.
“But I won’t review anything from a TV or a computer. I think that’s wrong.”
He quotes the late Roger Ebert, whose friendship and craft influenced Movshovitz to enter film criticism: “If you’re watching a movie on TV, you’re watching TV. You’re not watching a movie.”
Concerned the days of catching a new release at the neighborhood theater might be numbered, he notes that major film chains have undergone an “immensely expensive transformation to digital projection, which is something I don’t like.
“I don’t like it visually, I don’t like the way it works, and it is killing small distributors, art house chains and individual theaters. Still, the studios and large chains have invested a lot of money into this, and I don’t think they would spend all that money if they’re planning to close down next week.”
Movshovitz warns that if theaters ever do go out of business and the traditional way of viewing moving visual images disappears, “it would be a great pity,” he says. “We are increasingly locking ourselves in solitary confinement.
“Twelve years ago my family got a dog. He’s since died. But someone said it was important for dogs to interact with other dogs because otherwise they get vicious. I think this also applies to people.
“As we live our lives in progressively hermetic situations and conditions, I think we are becoming vicious,” he says. “People don’t know how to behave in public now.”
He pays homage to nostalgia by paraphrasing the late Roger Ebert.
“Ebert used to say that a group of strangers sitting in a theater and having a collective dream in the dark is really good for us.”
The haunting image, so beautifully expressed, hangs in the air.
“I love movie theaters,” he repeats. “Especially if the audience is quiet and knows how to act in public.”
THE American Film Institute used to list its top 100 films in various categories: inspirational (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), musicals (“Singin’ in the Rain”), heroes and villains (Atticus Finch and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, respectively), comedies (“Some Like it Hot”) and greatest movie of all time (“Citizen Kane”).
Now AFI awards top 10 honors to both films and television shows for each year. In 2012, the award for top film went to “Argo.” The top TV show was “American Horror Story: Asylum.”
Most people have favorite movies that accompanied them through the decades. Even 20 or 30 or 40 years after first seeing these gems, they can still recite lines in perfect synch with the actors.
“What makes a really great film?” Movshovitz reflects rhetorically. He opens the floodgates with an unusual reference. “Potter Stewart was a swing justice on the Supreme Court. He said he couldn’t define pornography but he knew it when he saw it.
“It’s a copout to say you know a great film when you see it,” he admits. Yet the statement rings true.
An extraordinary film “has a certain blend of feeling and mind, artistic competence and organization,” Movshovitz reflects.
“Sometimes as soon as a film begins, you feel that the filmmaker is holding you — and knows what he or she is doing.
“It has to do with a command of genre. Directors understand the rules of their own films. No matter how wild and crazy the movie may get, the filmmaker knows where he is in the process.
“A wonderful command of technique accompanies this — and intelligence, which is both emotional and cognitive.”
He cites “The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp,” a relatively obscure 1943 comedy-drama helmed by Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger, two of Movshovitz’s top directors, as a great film.
“I’m teaching ‘Colonel Blimp’ in a course on the films of WW I at UCD,” he says, “and it’s astonishing. The actors work in a declarative mode; the directors aren’t interested in imitating daily life. It’s theatrical in the sense that it’s demonstrative and very deliberate.”
After screening “Colonel Blimp” for his students, Movshovitz says that they “knew they were in the presence of something really extraordinary.
“I love these guys,” he says of Powell and Pressburger, who also directed “The Red Shoes” in 1948. A searing look at the ballet world, the film exposes the fatal tension between a ballerina’s dedication to her art and the desire for normalcy.
“The color and structure were inseparable,” he notes.
MOVSHOVITZ says that Jean Renoir, 85-year-old Agnes Varda (“She created French New Wave cinema five years before the boys did it”), Powell and Pressburger, Ernst Lubitsch, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Mike Leigh, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese are among the most eminent directors of his or any generation.
“But I love lots of directors,” he qualifies, suggesting he could pull countless names out of his magic hat. “It depends on the day.”
“Look, people like Powell and Pressburger, Bergman and Varda — filmmakers working now or who worked in the past — are artists of the first order.
“In the 1950s, Bergman and Kurosawa established film as an undeniably powerful art form equal to all the others.
“They made it obvious, in case anyone had their doubts.”
Asked to select one film for an indeterminate stay on a deserted island, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Ninotchka,” he smiles. Scenes from the 1939 classic directed by Lubitsch, written by Billy Wilder and starring Greta Garbo flash in his brain.
One of the first American films to criticize the tyrannical rule of Joseph Stalin, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer successfully disguised “Ninotchka” as a charming romantic comedy.
“It’s elegant and lovely and gorgeous and funny,” says Movshovitz, who particularly loves its subtle punches at Stalin — for example, when Comrade Yakushova (Garbo) bails out the three bumbling Soviet agents.
It’s the 1930s. The agents ask her, “Comrade, how are the trials going?” ‘They are very successful, comrades,” Garbo’s character says stoically. “Soon there will be better Russians — but fewer.”
He laughs heartily and at length, as if he never heard this snatch of dialogue.
“What a way to talk about the murder of millions of people,” he marvels. “I think Billy Wilder wrote that line. He had a pretty dark sense of humor.”
Movshovitz, a native of Trenton, NJ, moved to Denver in 1966 and earned an MA and a doctorate in English literature from CU. He was specializing in medieval literature at graduate school when his attention turned to films.
Friends in his Beowulf seminar knew that something was up when he interpreted the Old English heroic epic from the perspective of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Einstein’s theory of montage.