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What could be better than getting paid to watch movies?

Howie MovshovitzHOWIE 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.


Film poster of NinotchkaMOVSHOVITZ’ reviews are not limited to content, aesthetics, character development or technique. His critiques reflect a pervasive moral center that encourages the sensitive listener to step outside the box.

Art, he says, has the power to generate positive change in humanity — as well as stigmatize some members of the human race and falsely ennoble others.

“Years ago I read that the Nazis loved art,” he say. “They collected it. They stole it. It didn’t humanize them one damn bit. But I still believe art transforms people and helps them see their world in a new light.”

Movshovitz attributes the start of the Civil War to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. “In a way, art helped free the slaves,” he says.

Considered the bestselling novel of the 19th century, the story of the long-suffering slave Uncle Tom rallied the abolitionist cause.

President Lincoln, who met Stowe right after the beginning of the Civil War, reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.”

Movshovitz emphasizes that good movies can be enormously persuasive — positively or negatively — in the ethical sphere.

For example, in 1915 D.W. Griffith made “Birth of a Nation,” a rousing melodrama that ignited a racist fuse due to its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It flipped the paradigm of Uncle Tom’s Cabin 180 degrees,” he says.

“So art doesn’t always do good. But it can do.”

During recent years, the US has released a plethora of films (and made tons of money) on cinematic melodramas “where white people look good because they sympathize with black people who are mistreated,” Movshovitz says.

He cites “The Blind Spot” with Sandra Bullock and “The Help” as two formulaic models that egregiously miss the moral mark.

“They are absolutely disgraceful,” Movshovitz contends. “In ‘The Help,’ a young white Southern woman builds a writing career interviewing black women, but the women she’s writing about lose their jobs because of her. But isn’t it nice that she writes about them.”

He fully intends that last line to be sarcastic.

FILMS coming out of Israel “are really good right now,” Movshovitz says. “They’re hot. I look for films that, no matter where they originate, don’t just accept the clichés of their society.

“And I think Israeli films are very good at not accepting those clichés.”

He praises several Israeli productions: Eytan Fox’s “The Bubble” (2006); “Beaufort” (2007), directed by Joseph Cedar; Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2008); Samuel Moaz’s “Lebanon” (2009).

The Sie FilmCenter at the Tattered Cover LoDo screened a series of Israeli films last month.

Despite the passage of time, he says that Holocaust-themed releases still evoke an emotional response from the audience. “I think Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’ was very good. But it hasn’t had the influence of [Claude] Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary ‘Shoah.’”

He mentions the exceptional but locally overlooked “Hannah Arendt,” German director Margarethe von Trotta’s rendering of a pivotal time in the life of the controversial Jewish-German political philosopher.

“Boy, is it good,” Movshovitz enthuses. “It is terrific. The Landmark is only keeping a lot of these films around for a week, which angers me.

“This film is absolutely about the Holocaust, except it picks up a few years later.”

The movie centers on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which Arendt famously covered. Barbara Sukowa plays the title role.

Arendt achieved notoriety for the phrase “the banality of evil,” the subtitle of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem. An analysis of the unrepentant bureaucrat who deported hundreds of thousands of Jews to the death camps, it also examines the very nature of evil.

“Hannah Arendt’s ideas are fundamental to her life,” Movshovitz says. “Understanding is fundamental to her life. She is not a trivial or a frivolous person. She is honestly trying to understand Eichmann.”

While the term “the banality of evil” outraged Holocaust survivors, she in no way absolved Eichmann of his crimes, Movshovitz stresses. “I think she was saying that evil doesn’t necessarily involve dripping fangs — just passing papers and counting numbers.”

THE stereotype of Jewish-controlled Hollywood — usually invoked as an anti-Semitic canard — stems from a handful of Jewish immigrants who built one of America’ most glamorous and influential industries.

In the 1920s, Samuel Goldwyn, the Warner brothers, Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor transcended their immigrant roots to become “the kings of Hollywood,” Movshovitz says. “Some of them did terrific work. And some of them did schlock.”

He says their success relied on “marginal business. They were enterprising, interesting people looking to make money. The Warner Brothers ran a couple of film exchanges. The business was open to lowlifes, and closed to the socially acceptable.”

As Hollywood evolved into a glittering conglomerate, the studio chiefs finally achieved social acceptability. Their English might have been less than perfect, but their business acumen was spot-on.

“How the Warner brothers made it is amazing to me, because Jack Warner was a real idiot,” Movshovitz says. Warner’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee “was disgraceful, and stupid.”

Goldwyn, he says, “was a bizarre man with incredible instincts. You can’t be an idiot and produce all those films. He was an unfortunate English-speaker in some ways — like Mayor Daley. He got the words and ideas all screwed up.

“But he sure knew how to hire good people!”

Ironically, these Jewish impresarios that rose from the shtetl emulated the Protestant ethic in their pictures.

“The studio period was primarily Protestant in outlook, with a soft spot for nuns and priests,” Movshovitz says. “It wasn’t necessarily a good spot, but it definitely was there.”

MOVSHOVITZ has often said that his proudest accomplishment as a film critic is stimulating interest in relatively unknown yet exquisite films that deserve an audience.

If his reviews successfully prolong an overlooked cinematic gem’s engagement in Denver, Movshovitz is unabashedly pleased.

Among his two biggest accomplishments were 1990’s “Strangers in Good Company,” whose stay was extended from four days to a month at The Mayan, and generating buzz for Japanese director Kore-Eda’s “Maborisi.”

Movshovitz can also eviscerate films like an adept swordsman. It comes with the territory. An excellent film, however, elicits not only a verbal ovation but also his personal support.

“I want to extend the experience to as many people as possible,” he says.

Movshovitz returns to “Hannah Arendt,” which obviously left a profound impression on him.

“What a tremendous pleasure I got out of doing that review,” he says. “Nobody knew about this film — and I don’t know whether my review helped. But I did my best.”

So many books have been turned into movies that many people, especially publishers, view the written narrative through a cinematic filter. Movshovitz is not one of them.

“I respect the difference between great prose fiction and cinema, just as I respect the difference between really great non-fiction and documentary films,” he says.

“They are really different.”

Sometimes Movshovitz the film critic would like to be Movshovitz the average guy at the movies.

“I love what I do,” he says. “It’s a good way to watch a film. Imake sure my mind is engaged and I’m paying attention.

“But there I times I’d love to watch something and sort of let it go, like watching a tennis match on TV; you know, how the ball goes back and forth.”

Films can be experientially paradoxical. For instance, some viewers disappear inside a film, while others ultimately enounter themselves.

Which is it?

“Yes,” Movshovitz beams, aware of the duality. “Of course! It has to be both.

“I think every good film to some degree asks you to confront yourself — and also to forget.

“That’s the trick, isn’t it?”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 



Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer | andrea@ijn.com


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