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Glenn Kenny on Robert De Niro, 'Boyhood' Critics and the Long Death of Print

Criticwire By Greg Cwik | Criticwire August 19, 2014 at 12:00PM

The longtime critic talks about his book "Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor" and has a few choice words (in Russian!) for "Boyhood" contrarians
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Robert De Niro in "Stone"
Robert De Niro in "Stone"

Formerly the film critic for Premiere and MSN Movies, Glenn Kenny has been in the game for a long time. As incisive as he is insightful, Kenny helped usher in a new era of fervid film writing. He started working at Premiere full-time in 1997; when the magazine folded in 2007, he was the only staff member who remained, a move he considers “the biggest mistake of my professional career.” 

Asking Kenny a question is like punching a hole in a large, water-filled apparatus: He gets going, and thoughts just pour out in a steady deluge. Contentious and occasionally acidulous, the veteran critic is a ubiquitous presence on social media, and can often be found injecting his singular thoughts into serpentine Twitter threads. The fiercely self-aware Kenny admits that he can be intemperate, but he also contends that critics should be passionate about film, and sometimes they should get angry. 

Kenny’s new book is the latest in the Cahiers du Cinéma series Anatomy of an Actor. Using 10 films, Kenny traces the trajectory of the inimitable Robert De Niro’s career. The book, a big beast brimming with photos of De Niro and stills from his films, tries to put De Niro’s career choices in perspective and to elucidate the enigmatic actor, from his early days as an intense, angry young man trying to break into acting to an arthouse icon of New Hollywood to his belated ascension to the ranks of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. (Kenny is upset that two typos ended up in the printed book, but good luck finding them.)

Kenny has said, more than once, that he tends to repeat the same anecdotes to friends and acquaintances, but he never sounds bored or banal when he speaks. He’s a polarizing figure who conjures quips with startling ease, and he’s tons of fun to speak with. 

Why did you choose to write about Robert De Niro?

Actually, I didn’t choose him, which isn’t to say I wasn’t delighted to do the book. I met in July or August 2012 with a woman from France who was putting together the slate of Cahiers books. Valerie Buffet was very kind. I have to give credit to Nicolas Saada, who put me in contact with Valerie. I wasn’t really aware what the plan for the series was. The first thing I pitched to Valerie was a biography of Richard Quine, and she agreed that he was a significant and worthwhile filmmaker, but this was not necessarily the most marketable idea known to mankind. Cahiers had the monographs on masters and directors, and they had just started Anatomy of an Actor. The first two books that were just commissioned were Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. I submitted a list of ten roles, which were the ten that ended up in the book, and I didn’t hear anything for a few months. In March 2013 I got the go-ahead, and I started writing it. I didn’t pitch De Niro, but when his name came up I jumped on it and got very excited. 

A lot of critics have difficulty writing about acting. Some don’t even try. How did you approach writing about the craft of acting for this book? 

It’s funny, I did a reading a couple weeks ago with Dan Callahan and I was busting his chops a bit. He studied acting, and I said, “Well, you studied acting, but I’ve appeared in films as an actor.” I said I played the title role in “Che.” But that’s a joke. 

People still like to quote that rather ridiculous Dave Eggers cri de coeur: “Don’t be a critic unless you’ve made a movie, or written a book, blah blah blah.” I’ve acted in two movies, does that mean I now have the right to write about acting? I don’t think it’s necessary at all. Criticism is about looking, about perception, and processing, and thinking things through and putting it on paper. That said, it’s been helpful, mainly to my critical vocabulary, to have done those things. There’s a lot of intensive looking in De Niro’s work, and his tics are part of his performing vocabulary. The good sense with which he uses those tics is especially evident in one of his best roles, in “Goodfellas,” which I didn’t write about. It’s some of his best acting relative to the camera. Jimmy Conway just gets paranoid and kills everybody, and there’s this thing with the wig salesman and degenerate gambler and he’s getting agitated and wants his cut. The scene with Cream playing on the jukebox. De Niro’s just smoking a cigarette, but Scorsese’s got this relatively elaborate shot with the camera moving in on Jimmy, and the speed cranks up just a bit, and De Niro’s looking back and forth, furrowing his brow, all common De Niro tics, and there was clearly some very intense discussion and planning, to hit marks with his eyes, his pupils, the top of his head. It’s impeccable acting that only works on camera. So critics have to watch the actor. To quote Jules Verne, “Look, look with all your eyes, look.” 

I wanted to ask you about “Heat,” since it features that iconic non-scene between De Niro and Pacino, but you chose not to include it within the 10 roles.

I felt that De Niro’s role was kind of subordinate to Pacino’s. I think there was some general agreement, and “Heat” ended up being a chapter in Karina Longworth’s book on Pacino. one of the things that makes “Heat” such an extraordinary movie is how every little piece is inextricable from the whole. I think it’s the height of Mann’s talent as a filmmaker that he’s able to work with these two incredible powerful and idiosyncratic performers but weave them organically into a narrative and environment where, despite the fact that they have scenes that are isolated from that environment, really don’t have a viable existence outside of that context. You’re not supposed to look at that scene and think, “Ah, De Niro and Pacino,” and Mann makes it about the characters. I think if you look at the film the right way you see the characters and no De Niro and Pacino. “I’m a guy and you’re a guy and we’re having coffee” is an interesting thing in the movie, but it’s not “I coulda been a contender." It’s part of a bigger picture. There’s a deep seriousness to De Niro’s performance, even by his standards, that gives everything a heaviness. I don’t know how that jibes with what I wrote.

There’s something very interesting that Edward Norton told me in an interview about “Stone.” One of the reasons did the work at the caliber that he did is because the director John Curran is not a guy who’s cowed by famous actors like De Niro. Obviously he respects him, but his job is to direct De Niro, and in a lot of De Niro’s lesser work I think directors are sometimes afraid to direct him. In “Heat,” both Pacino and De Niro are directed well by Michael Mann.

You wrote for Premiere and were one of the first big online film writers. How has the landscape of criticism changed since you started?

It’s kind of a funny thing. The publishing industry only has itself to blame for its problems. I don’t mean editors. I joined the staff of Premiere in 1997. My editor at the time was Jim Meigs. Even as far back as ’98, ’99, I was aware of weblogs, which weren’t yet called blogs, and you knew they were really starting to happen. I was tuned into that, thought I didn’t really know how to approach the format. It was inelegant in appearance but you had to be pretty savvy to understand it. Jim Meigs was savvy. He was high on new media, as it was called at the time. There was a question of “What do we do with new media?” And the answer from the executive class was, “Nothing.” There was this point between 2005 and 2007 when suddenly people were like, “Hey, this is really happening.” In 2005 the execs were saying, “What the hell is a blog?” to 2007, when they were saying, “Hey, where’s our blog?” 

In December of 2006 I started a blog called In The Company of Glenn. [laughs] That’s hilarious. And the reason I did it is because I finally saw the writing on the wall at that point. I can be intemperate. My last boss at Premiere was Peter Herbst, who was very encouraging. He taught me not to call out other critics in my reviews so much. There was this part of me that was really aching to do that. I wasn’t thinking Premiere was going to fold. We were coming off our biggest single issue in the history of the magazine, the 2005 “Ocean’s 11” cover.  Two years later the magazine folded, and everyone was let go but me. I stayed on to do the website, and that was the biggest mistake of my professional career. I spent a year working on a website that was completely nonfunctional. Nobody had any idea how to manage it, it had no budget, and less than a year later they brought in this big shot who was just dripping with contempt for anything that wasn’t web aggregation. And I lost the job four months after that, after being miserable fighting this asshole who’s now with Thrillist, and is probably still an asshole.

I won’t quote you on that.

No, please do. I don’t give a fuck. I’m supposed to be more even-tempered now, but as Vito Corleone says, “That I do not forgive.” He’s the reason there’ll never be a digital archive of old print Premiere issues. Because he just fucking packed everything up and sent it to a warehouse in Jersey City, where it’s probably flooded. Anyway, I should have left with everyone else. They didn’t know anything about digital publishing. Nobody knows anything about digital publishing now, honestly. As far as the critical landscape is concerned, it’s probably exactly the same as it would have been otherwise except bigger. Hacks are everywhere; they’ll always be with us. I mean, the Marvel fans generally referred to as “fanboys” make their presence known in a way that’s different than it used to be. I don’t think the current age of Marvel movies would be as forceful as it is if we were in a more exclusively print culture. I’ve heard “Print is dying” since 1985, when I got my first job at a magazine at Video Review. No one was going to be surprised that print was going to die, though the fact that it lived a little longer, had an Indian summer or second wind, lulled some people into a false sense of complacency. 

But in terms of the film critic landscape, it’s just weird that these people get into these arguments. There’s all this weird drama. Like, people are talking about being afraid to say bad things about “Boyhood?” Who the fuck is afraid to say bad things about “Boyhood?” Who gives a shit? People say, “We need a culture that embraces dissent.” It’s not dissent! Dissent is… (impersonates old Russian Grandmother) "Dissent is when you’re living in Soviet Russia and you’re put under house arrest!" Big fucking deal, you have a different opinion. We don’t have to embrace different opinions, it’s called arguing. It’s what we do. “Oh, poor me, I’m the only person who didn’t like ‘Boyhood.’” Just get the fuck off the cross, man, we need the wood. 

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I want to do another Anatomy of an Actor with Cahiers. I pitched Marilyn Monroe, because even though there have been millions and millions of words written about her, no one’s really done an analysis or assessment of her as a performer, and I thought that’d be interesting. But they’re very focused on contemporary figures, so I’m going to pitch them on Gene Hackman. But it’s August, so you can’t communicate with France, let alone French publishing. 

This article is related to: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Stone, Boyhood


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