“It’s like going to the funeral of someone you don’t know—you are miserable and don’t know why you are there.” So says famed New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell on what children’s films were like for parents during most of film history.
Mitchell spoke last Wednesday in the popular course Literature and Arts A-18: Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature, and later gave a brief question and answer session at the Harvard Film Archive. Mitchell appeared at the request of course instructor and Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Maria Tatar after meeting her on the Today Show to discuss the Harry Potter phenomenon. Both hit it off and Mitchell was more than happy to speak as a guest lecturer. During his lecture Mitchell discussed the film versions of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a key book in Tatar’s course. Though there have been many adaptations of Nabokov’s controversial work, Mitchell feels that Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation is by far the best. It truly stands the test of time, says Mitchell. Kubrick brilliantly meshed Nabokov’s theme of sexuality being used in order to sell with his own unique style of filmmaking.
Looking at commercials today, Bob Dole is drooling over a gyrating Britney Spears in order to sell Pepsi—an incarnation of the Lolita phenomenon. Though Mitchell feels that in the past children’s films have been less than pleasurable experiences for older moviegoers, he states that films aimed towards children have recently become very savvy and now try to integrate two levels of humor—one aimed at children and another aimed towards parents. Monsters Inc., Shrek, Toy Story 2—all of these films are very clever and include humor that older audiences can enjoy. When asked why this large shift occurred, Mitchell doesn’t hesitate for a moment. “The Simpsons” changed everything, he quickly states. “It brought a new level of complexity to animation that has influenced almost every animated project since.”
During the question and answer period, which was attended by more than 20 enthusiastic students, Mitchell displayed his typical wit and intelligence while answering a variety of questions. Towards the beginning of the session Mitchell bucked the current critical trend and proclaimed that the last few years have been a great time to go to the movies. The main problem is not bad films, but inept films, he says. Though admitting that there have been many of these inept films lately, Mitchell maintains that there have been many great films released during the past few years, but that a number of them simply do not receive the publicity they deserve. This is where Mitchell feels he comes in as a critic—he says he can help steer moviegoers towards excellent films that fly under the mainstream radar. In fact, throughout the one-hour session Mitchell mentioned a film called Lumumba that has been sorely ignored and urged the audience to try to see it if at all possible.
Throughout the session Mitchell answered questions on subjects ranging from blacks in the entertainment industry to E.T. (a film which he dislikes due to Steven Spielberg’s insistence on constantly holding everyone’s hand) to the role of musical scores in films. “Scores are definitely a very important aspect of movies. At some point I have to write a piece of the greatest scores of all time,” he said. Among recent films, he cites Oceans 11’s jazzy David Holmes score as one of the best aspects of the film.
In the end, it is clear that Mitchell is dedicated to his work and despite receiving several offers, is not likely to enter any other aspect of the entertainment industry any time soon. No matter how many bad films Mitchell may endure, he remains positive. “I’m basically set,” he said about his job at the Times. “Being a critic is like being a perpetual dater—everything looks great from a distance. When you get up close many will be disasters, but I keep hope alive and always try to think that the next film will be the one.”