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Michael Sragow chat from May 5, 2001

Feel free to ask Sragow about the movie "Cobb," which he's presenting at the Maryland Film Festival on May 4 at 2 p.m. at the Charles, any of the other films at the festival, or anything else about movies in general.

Rose, Baltimore: Are you fair when you review movies? Do you like action movies?

Sragow: I try to be fair, but only the reader can be the judge of that. All I can do is be honest. I do like action movies, but I don't like what action movies have become. The action movies I grew up on, like "The Guns of Navarone" and "The Great Escape," were thrilling but were also based on character. In fact one of the best things about "The Great Escape" is that it perfected so many vivid screen personalities, including Steve McQueen as a kind of James Cagney for the motorcycle age, and James Garner as the slick, devious charmer. Action movies today, even when they have big stars, tend to lack those kinds of vibrant personalities, or any dramatic tension that would make the action scenes have any lasting impact.

Suzanne, York, Penn.: How do you think "Cobb" compares to the new Billy Crystal HBO film "61*"?

Sragow: I haven't had a chance to see the Billy Crystal/HBO film, but I am intrigued by the similarities of some of its themes and "Cobb." I'm particularly curious to see how they handle the whole aspect of media coverage of sports creating its own alternate version of reality. Apparently one theme of "61*" is that Maris was depicted as a crude and vulgar man when he was actually a really decent and principled fellow. Even when Cobb was at his height as a star, no one could hide all of his excesses, but no one knew the extent of them until Al Stump published his "untold story" in 1994. It was the nub of the story which first appeared in the men's magazine "True" back in 1961 that inspired the writer/director of "Bull Durham" Ron Shelton to make the movie "Cobb." I used to be a movie critic at the LA Herald-Examiner where Stump was for years a star sportswriter -- in fact another great sportswriter from the Her-Ex, the late Allan Malamud, makes a cameo at the start of "Cobb." The story of the movie is amazing for how it depicts a journalist as successful and respected as Stump ignoring whole aspects of Cobb's life when he was writing the "official version" for Cobb himself.

Scott, Baltimore: Why do you think "Cobb" failed when it was first released? Didn't the studio figure it to be Academy Award bait?

Sragow: There's a difference between a studio regarding a movie as "Oscar bait" and a studio realizing that because it doesn't know how to sell a movie the only way a studio can sell it is with Oscar nominations. The latter was the case with "Cobb." It was tossed into a mere handful of cities -- I don't think it ever played in more than a dozen. And it was in the week after Thanksgiving and before the real start of the Christmas movie season. That's the real dead time when studios release movies with a "sink or swim" attitude. The only movie I can remember that became a hit on that date was "48 Hours." Further, "Cobb" just didn't get the critical support that the filmmakers and the studio hoped for. A lot of reviewers, and to be fair, a lot of audiences, reacted against the very choice of centering a film on a sadistic, racist, psychotic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic megalomaniac like Cobb. Of course what's great about the movie is that it still makes you confront Cobb as a tragicomic human being, not a psychological lab specimen.

Jim, Columbia: If the sun stopped producing light this very second, how long would it be before the earth would be in darkness? Could that be an idea for a movie?

Sragow: You can go three ways on this: A big budget blockbuster like "Armageddon," or a 90-minute "Twilight Zone-y" kind of thing (come to think of it, didn't "The Twilight Zone" do this once?) or finally, and perhaps most appropriately, as a really experimental, avant garde short.

Bob, Baltimore: Do you think the movie "Cobb" was judged unfairly because the lead character was unlikable?

Sragow: Exactly. And the funny thing is, he's never merely unlikable. He's also hilarious, courageous in the face of death, spontaneously eloquent and ultimately moving.

Sid, Baltimore: How much does your personal taste in movies affect your reviews?

Sragow: Personal taste is everything in reviewing movies. The challenge is to articulate your views in such a way that even people who disagree with them feel they're somehow illuminating or even entertaining.

Dave, Federal Hill: What will be the biggest movie of the summer?

Sragow: Probably "Pearl Harbor." It's got all the "Greatest Generation" stuff, plus it has Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Cuba Gooding Jr. and it's written by the guy who did "Braveheart," which I didn't like but certainly showed he could whip up a crowd-pleasing scenario for a spectacle. Also, although a lot of movies have ended up costing more, I believe "Pearl Harbor" holds the record for the largest starting budget, which should win a lot of publicity right there. Who knows, it might even be good.

Maria, Towson: What are your first impressions of Baltimore as a "film city" compared to some of the other cities you have been in?

Sragow: The Charles is a really great theater, but since it's the only game in town, as far as art or independent or specialty films, the release of these movies tends to get backed up. Many movies don't seem to open here or open here very late; even with a movie as prestigious as "The Tailor of Panama," which is a major studio release with big stars, the distributor waited to see how it played in Washington or New York before taking a chance here. To be fair, bigger cities, like Philadelphia, have similar problems. Perhaps when distributors take note of the recent wild success of the Charles, and if the audience for the kind of movie it shows keeps growing, the situation will improve.

Joe, York, Penn.: You've been a critic for papers in many different cities -- which one is your favorite and why?

Sragow: Although it was a very high-pressure job in a very high-pressure place, the two-and-a-half years I spent as the lead critic for the LA Herald-Examiner were probably the biggest influence on the rest of my life and career. There was a real scrappy underdog spirit at the newspaper, and the editors supported me whenever I tweaked the noses of the producers and executives who were right there. It took a lot of guts on their part when studios were pulling advertising and producers were hiring security guards to bar me from their screenings.

Emily, Baltimore: Which fesitval films are you most looking forward to seeing?

Sragow: A lot of the documentaries look interesting. They're showing two music documentaries by Robert Mugge -- "Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise," which was made in 1980 but is rarely shown, and "Rhythm 'n' Bayous" a more recent film about Louisiana music. I was a big fan of Mugge's "The Gospel According to Al Green" and "Deep Blues." Also the documentary "Rediscovering George Washington" based on Richard Brookhiser's biography. The idea of moral biography, especially in the presidential arena, seems pertinent today. This week in the Live section I write about "Dr. Strangelove" and "Baxter" and the films of Shirley Clarke, in Friday's Today I'll write about "Cobb," and on Sunday I'll write about "Unforgiven." And naturally I think all those are worthy subjects for your attention.

Daire, Owings Mills: Do you find it difficult to watch movies or films just for fun, without an analytical eye? Do you ever want to watch films just for fun?

Sragow: I always go to a film hoping I can watch it just for fun. And I'm often disappointed when the fun is not sustained. I wouldn't keep going to movies and writing about them if there weren't moments of energy and wit and surprise, whether in a performance, or a piece of writing or a camera angle, even in the most loathsome drek.

Mary, Roland Park: What are some of your favorite films?

Sragow: As I've often said, and will continue to say, "The Wild Bunch" is the greatest movie, which reminds me: "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," a really super documentary about the making of the film, also screens at the festival on Friday. "Godfather I & II," "Children of Paradise," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "E.T.," "The Seven Samuri," "Yankee Doodle Dandee," "Third Man," and yes "The Great Escape." Also the films of Vittorio De Sica and Satyajit Ray. Also there are some really underrated American directors, like Brian De Palma and Walter Hill and Phil Kaufman (he did "Unbearable Lightness of Being" but also "The Right Stuff," "The Wanderers," and my favorite film from last year, "Quills"). One director who has taken amazing leaps in the last few years is Curtis Hanson, who did "L.A. Confidential" and "Wonder Boys." When it comes to actors, "Wonder Boys" brings to mind Robert Downey Jr. He went to the top of his class with "Chaplin," and made me a watcher of "Ally McBeal." I hope Russel Crowe learns how to smile again, because he is very talented, but ever since "L.A. Confidential" directors have been over-exploiting his "brooding" force. I liked a movie he was in called "Rough Magic," which was directed by Clare Peploe, who is one of the best female directors around. She made "High Season" with Jacqueline Bissett over a decade ago. She also co-wrote Bernardo Bertolucci's mesmerizing and too-little-seen "Besieged." I could go on, but I hope I've made it clear that there's a great variety of films I consider both "worthy" and exhilarating.

SunSpot: Thanks for joining us Michael.


Michael Sragow has been a film critic for papers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, and has had articles in several top publications. He comes to the Sun from Salon.com, where he wrote movie reviews and articles since 1999.

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