Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies by Owen Gleiberman
Hatchette Books, 2016; 352 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
I sometimes return to Philip Lopate’s essay “Anticipation of La Notte” to read his eloquent summation of the eternal struggles within every serious film lover: “I was unable to find a few moments a week of daily life charged with that poetic transcendence I had come to expect from the movies. I wanted life to have the economy and double meaning of art.” That quote returned to me throughout my reading of critic Owen Gleiberman’s Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies, a memoir that explores the complex balance of living half your life in a darkened theatre and trying to find meaning when outside of it. Gleiberman, the founding film critic for Entertainment Weekly and current writer for BBC.com presents a nakedly honest portrait of himself as a man doing his best to keep his head above water emotionally, romantically, and professionally.
Before a 9-year-old Gleiberman caught the film bug at a drive-in screening of Rosemary’s Baby, he already found himself living as an outsider when she pushed for him to skip kindergarten and delaying the chance for him to connection with other children. Gleiberman remembers, “What skipping kindergarten did was to abstract me from other kids, turning me into someone who stood almost reflexively outside a situation…It locked me into a state of voyeuristic passivity, turning me into a person who doesn’t so much stand up and do things as sit around and watch things, waiting for someone else to do them.” For Gleiberman, cinema became the perfect place to lose himself to be that observer because “for the true movie buff, being at the movies, even if you’re with other people, means that you are alone.” But what happens when you do want to connect to the larger world?
Gleiberman’s most candid memories show his attempts to feel connected to other people while still living remotely. He succeeds in sparking a friendship with famed critic Pauline Kael after mailing her a fan letter. Then a looming figure of film criticism, Kael initially shows interest in Gleiberman as a protégé, but the his resists the urge to blindly submit to her whims, becoming a “Paulette” like those critics who did follow her lead. A Kael acolyte, David Edelstein, becomes another member of the film community who’s friendship with Gleiberman’s strains under professional competitiveness. Romantically, Gleiberman struggles too. A late bloomer, he’s already far into college before he has his first date. The years pass as he finds comfort in pornography, office flings, and self-destructive lovers. Gleiberman does not shy from painting himself as selfish and emotionally ill-equipped for sex and romance, making each new liaison difficult to witness, like watching a plane hurtle from the sky before crashing to the ground.
Besides exploring his personal struggles, Gleiberman offers insights from the frontline as entertainment journalism morphed in the 1990s and 2000s. The author charts man cultural shifts in film throughout the book, but his tenure at Entertainment Weekly shows how the rise of digital media impacted the way he functioned at work. Where a bad review once put Gleiberman in bad standing with an editor, he spent a career trying to play the “adapt or die” game where an increasingly watered-down pop culture market meant praising or condemning the wrong movie could draw ire and every year-end top ten list needed to have its ranking approved by the higher-ups. Often seen as a contrarian (a categorization he resists in the book), Gleiberman makes a convincing case that perhaps he’s merely resisted the pressure to conform to public and professional pressure that sometimes dictates which movies we can like and which we cannot.