One of the things I want to do in order to inject some more positivity into this blog is to start talking with writers and commentators in the scene and letting people get to know a little more about the people whose work is helping inform their understanding of the cinema landscape. I am going to be shooting out questions to writers I know an writers who catch my eye so watch for it, I think this will be a fun series.
I think it’s fitting to start with Mike White, not because he was the guy who blew the whistle and told what he knew about Lianne Spiderbaby, not because he busted out Quentin Tarantino over a decade before for lifting influences for Reservior Dogs from the relatively obscure City on Fire, not because he’s been on the front lines of incredibly in-depth and knowledgeable commentary on film through his blog, his Cashiers du Cinemart ‘zine and his Projection Booth podcast.
I want to start with Mike because once upon a time my wife was trying to track down a really obscure little Canadian film which became lost to time – Psycho Pike. She knew some people involved in making the film but nobody could seem to find a copy. For years she had a Facebook page dedicated to the film and people would routinely join the group and add to the body of knowledge about the film, telling the stories of their involvement with the film. Psycho Pike itself proved elusive.
Enter Mike White who found the film and gave so many of the people who had been searching for this lost Canadian trash treasure some closure.
That’s the kind of guy Mike is. He loves this stuff. He lives and breathes this stuff. He’s the real deal.
So without further fanfare, let’s hear from the man himself.
LPP: How did you get into writing?
MW: I don’t really recall a time in my life when I wasn’t wanting to be a writer. Even when I was eight or nine years old, I was pounding out stories on a little portable manual typewriter that had been ceded to me by my mother. Granted, many of these tales were rehashes of The Empire Strikes Back with Yoda as more of a main character but we all have to start somewhere, right? I still contend that I’m not much of a writer. I like to describe what I do as putting words down on a piece of paper where I’m lucky if they happen to make a sentence.
As for writing about movies in particular, I started doing so while I was in college. It’s kind of hard to get a degree in film without jotting down some thoughts on the occasional movie. I had enjoyed writing essays since high school and found far more joy in film theory than most would think healthy. After college, I didn’t want to give up writing about movies and, thus, Cashiers du Cinemart was born.
LPP: Why movies (genre or otherwise) as the focus of your writing. Of all the
things out there to throw your talents at, why is it film for you?
MW: I suppose that it’s out of love for the art form. I knew that I had loved movies since I was a kid. When I went into college I was fairly aimless and lucked into a film studies class with Professor Frank Beaver. After that I started taking more film classes. The more I learned, the more I enjoyed it. What I especially appreciated was just how many movies there were in the world and what they had to offer. I think things really took a turn when a friend of mine was at Tower Records and picked up Colin Geddes’s Asian Eye zine. It opened up a whole world of films with which I wasn’t too familiar. It was zine like this that made me want to give back to the community. What if I knew of a movie that was great and some kid in Podunk didn’t know about it that should? More than recycling opinions about the latest Hollywood blockbuster, I wanted to seek out the gems that weren’t being written about in the weekly rags. And, moreover, I wanted to let people know about these films that not everyone might know.
LPP: I’ve had people tell me “it doesn’t matter, it’s just movies” and that
stung me a bit. Have you ever had people give you that treatment? What do
you say to “it’s only movies”?
MW: Fortunately, I’ve never had anyone say that to me. I’m not sure how I would react to that if someone tried to belittle a branch of the arts. Sure, there are commercial films – and I like plenty of them – but cinema can encapsulate so many things. To denigrate film is akin to saying that poetry isn’t important. Sure, there’s some rotten versions of it, but there are also some masterpieces. I guess if someone said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just movies,” that I would just feel sad for them.
LPP: What is an issue in the subculture that you feel is important to address?
MW: A few things come to mind; plagiarism and conflict of interest.
I’m not sure if conflict of interest is as bad as it used to be; or maybe idiots who get flown into junkets keep it more on the downlow. Sour grapes? You bet!
As for plagiarism, I think that one need only scratch the surface to find other instances after the Spiderbaby scandal. That may have had an impact on film writing though I’m not entirely sure it did.
LPP: What is it that you like best about this business?
MW: I really wouldn’t necessarily think that I’m in any kind of business. I made a pittance at times when writing the occasional review for Detroit’s Jewish News and had something of a steady pay check ($5 a movie review) when I was reviewing films for a local pop culture website but I definitely don’t make enough to consider myself even a part time employee in any business of writing.
LPP: What is it you like the least about this business?
MW: Even more than the money, a lot of times I bemoan the just sheer glut of material out there which is just redundant. It used to take some chutzpah to get out the typewriter, find a Xerox machine to make copies, and spend some money at the post office to get your opinion out into the world. The price of entry has been lowered considerably as has the quality of writing (in terms of quantity). However, going back to the roots of the Internet, it’s been a great platform for the sharing of ideas and for opening up research material. To be able to sit on one’s couch and look at The New York Times archives is amazing.
LPP: Who are some writers in the field that you admire? Why?
MW: When it comes to reading about film, I try to surround myself with writers I admire. I’m a fan of Mike Malloy and Mike Sullivan. When it comes to writers not named Mike, I also dig what Heather Drain, Kier-la Janisse, and Kimberly Lindbergs are doing, too. And, of course, Steve Puchalski who continues to publish Shock Cinema consistently in this crazy world where print is a dying thing.
As for the writers whose work lines my shelves, I’m a big fan of Danny Peary, Joe Bob Briggs, Tania Modleski, and Molly Haskell.
LPP: Do you ever worry about your integrity?
MW: I’m not sure if I have any integrity to worry about.
LPP: What is “the job” in your opinion?
MW: As someone not in “the business,” I’m not sure if my opinion of “the job” carries as much water as a bucket with a hole in it. All I know is that I think that research should be as much, if not more, of writing as is opinion. Everyone has opinions, as we all know, it’s those that can back these up that make for compelling writing. Likewise, if we’re talking movies, I don’t care to read parroted press packs or simple rundowns of plot synopses.
LPP: Tell us about a time you feel your integrity was tested. How do you feel you performed?
MW: Having little to no integrity, I’ve never had this particular trait tested. I suppose the most I’ve never been “tested” was having to give an honest opinion of a friend’s film when I didn’t like it. If a friend sends me a movie and I don’t enjoy it, I don’t make a point to write a review or publicize my problems. But, when I’m requested (or badgered) to provide an honest critique, I do my best to provide an even-handed critique while feeling bad doing it. I always picture myself as Jedediah Leland writing his review of Susan Alexander’s opera debut.
LPP: Do you have someone you consider your mentor?
MW: “Mentor” is a word that has lost a lot of meaning of late. I’ve seen this word thrown around too often instead of the term “inspiration”. As for the true definition of mentor – someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person – I’ve not had someone in my life in this capacity. Certainly, I’ve had teachers and professors I’ve admired along with writers I enjoy.
I think that the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about writing has been from Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser: “The key to writing is re-writing.”
LPP: Does quality writing matter?
MW: Duh. Yeah.
LPP: What do you want to accomplish with your work?
MW: My goal with my writing or podcasting has most often been to expose people to interesting films they may not have encountered otherwise. There are times that I write about popular films and, to that end, I hope to either give a different reading or, more selfishly, to work out why I enjoy (or didn’t enjoy) a film. Some may set out to conquer the world with their writing. I’m just lucky to get a paragraph written.
LPP: You have started writing for Fangoria recently. How did that come about?
MW: Right around the time that The Projection Booth (a podcast I co-host) did an episode on William Friedkin’s Cruising, the editor-in-chief of Fangoria, Chris Alexander, asked me for contact information for one of the actors. Rather than provide it, I suggested that he either talk to the former police officer who helped inspire the movie, Randy Jurgensen. To go one better, I offered to transcribe the interview we did with him for The Projection Booth podcast. With thoughts still swirling around in my head about the film – and some new information we got after the podcast episode went live – I also sat down and penned a couple hundred words on the film. I wasn’t sure if Alexander wanted this or not but I felt the need to write it. When I sent along the interview transcription, I included this other piece. Fortunately, Alexander not only liked what I had written but offered it a home in Fangoria.
LPP: Do you feel conflicted at all about it considering you and I were at one
point digging in to the history of mistreatment of writers at the publication?
MW: Frankly, no, I didn’t really conflicted at all. I decided I would give it a shot, walking in with eyes open. I’m really glad I did as I managed to get a couple of pieces out in front of an audience I’d never reached before. Likewise, I made more scratch with those two Fangoria pieces than I did for my entire last book project. This allowed me the funds to order the copies for the contributors of Cashiers du Cinemart #18. It’s like Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” really worked in this instance. Plus, it was fun getting paid for doing the work that I had done on The Projection Booth. If only that happened more often!
LPP: What would you say to critics of this move?
MW: Are there really people critical of me doing this? I sure hope not. That doesn’t sound very reasonable to me. Writers write. If we get paid, that’s even better. I suppose if I came from a different background where I counted on my writing for my daily bread then I might be more apprehensive about working for a place that had a history of not paying writers but, really, for every horror story I heard about days past at Fangoria, I ran across several people that didn’t have complaints outside of the usual work bullshit that we all experience. If folks have a problem with what I do or how I spend my free time, they’re free to drop me a note.