- Ron Hogan
- 35 years old
- "Born in Rhode Island, shuffled to various military bases before settling outside Boston." Now lives in Queens.
- Author of "The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane!"; Co-Editor of Galleycat; Editor of Beatrice.com; Freelance writer
You're better known for your publishing/literary writing on websites Beatrice.com and Galleycat. Why "The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane!" -- a book about 1970s film?
My original academic background is in film studies, so I've always had a healthy interest in the field, even when my professional career was hurtling me deeper and deeper into book publishing. And the 1970s just struck me as a period worth delving into in more detail than had yet been done -- I like what Peter Biskind did with "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," but it's only about a very small cluster of directors, none of whom (except maybe Hal Ashby) needed any introduction to today's film audiences. If his heroes had transformed the industry, well, I wanted to ride through some of the ripples they created.
So if you have a master's in film studies, how did you end up with a career that has so far focused on the book industry?
I happened to get caught in the grad school glut of the mid-'90s. When seven of us got through the master's program, and there were only three openings for the Ph.D. track, I had to find something else to do quick. I was already working in a bookstore, and then I saw the first article about Netscape in Wired, and I knew I should get into "new media" while it was still early in the game. So I started freelancing for online magazines, and eventually parlayed that into an Amazon gig, which lasted until they figured out that customers will review books for free.
How do you consider this book to be different from the other examinations of '70s cinema that have certainly been popular over the past few years?
I think it's just a function of enough time passing. And the main difference between my book and what's come before -- the Biskind, the really good A Decade Under the Influence documentary, and so on -- is that everything else has maintained a very narrow focus, concentrating on films that are (not undeservedly) considered creative pinnacles. I love those films, but I'm just as interested in everything else people watched at the time.
"Stewardess" falls somewhere between pretty coffee table fodder and grand survey. What are you hoping readers get out of it, and what audience are you targeting? Casual film fan? Hardcore cineaste?
I always wanted this to be an illustrated book, but one that encompassed as much of '70s films as I could cram into it. Being able to see a film still is just so much more evocative than reading even the most elaborate description of a plot or a scene. I hope that anybody who loves movies will enjoy the book; they'll learn something about Hollywood history, something about American history, and either have a lot of great memories or get some great ideas for their Netflix queue. But if people go into this expecting a bunch of auteur theory or detailed elaboration of mise-en-scène, they'll be disappointed, because this isn't so much about the artistry of film but about its cultural significance. In fact, probably the most important thing I ever learned in film school is how overrated film theory is.
How did you choose the actors and filmmakers to whom you devote special pages? For instance, Barbara Streisand, Al Pacino and even Burt Reynolds seem to be in such a different league from Donald Pleasance, Shelley Winters and maybe James Coburn (at least considering their longevity)? Obviously, you can never include everybody, but how did you settle on who was included?
I tried to stick with the criteria of '70s iconic status without conscious consideration of their earlier or later careers. Obviously, Donald Pleasance was never at Streisand or Pacino levels, but can you imagine '70s horror without him? Can you imagine '70s disaster or cop movies without George Kennedy?
Was there anyone you profiled you had to cut or anyone you wish you had been able to include?
There were a few people I'd like to have spoken with. I tried really hard to get Donald Sutherland to talk about that stretch where he made M*A*S*H and Kelly's Heroes and Johnny Got His Gun, three of the most unconventional war films ever made, let alone in 1970. And then there's Bob Minor, the first African-American member of the Hollywood stuntmen union, who worked on many of the major blaxploitation films and is still at it 35 years later. Or Tak Fujimoto, best known as Jonathan Demme's cinematographer. His first credited assignment, though, was Terence Malick's Badlands.
Did you actually watch every film you mention? How did you know which films to look for -- especially considering some of the more obscure or forgotten, at least by today's standards, titles?
I didn't watch Americathon; I can't even find Americathon. But I crammed a lot of movies into the six-month writing period. Fortunately, as a former film major, I'd watched a lot of movies already, but I definitely had some catching up to do. To put the master list together, once I had the framework established, I pretty much hit the Internet Movie Database and did all kinds of keyword searches, not to mention reading through the worklist of as many actors and directors as I could think of that were active during the decade.
What was your process in choosing films to mention, and how much did the acquisition of photo stills play into it? Certainly the photos included are one of, the book's most impressive attributes.
There were a handful of films on our list that managed to stump Manoah Bowman, the photo editor, but very few. He did an amazing job of pulling together stills from about 450 films on our first list, and we spent nearly three days looking at them all. Sometimes there just wasn't any image that really grabbed us, and then some images just fell on the cutting room floor as I was writing.
Do you consider all the titles you've included good movies or just good representations of what was occurring in 1970s cinema?
Oh, I don't think anybody out there is going to walk away from this thinking, "Hey, Empire of the Ants was actually a pretty good film!" Because, let's face it, it isn't, but it's a good representation of the environmentalist concerns that played out in a lot of movies then. Still, there are some films that I think people dismiss far too quickly, or that have a lot to tell us about '70s America if we're willing to stop laughing at everybody's clothes and look at what's going on. Take White Line Fever (1975) and look at the class dynamics going on between the truckers and the owners, or The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973), which didn't actually get into the book because I couldn't track down the DVD in time -- it's absolutely the most politically hard-hitting blaxploitation film ever made.
How reflective of the times themselves do you think the movies of the '70s were? And, more importantly, how do you think those films, while reflecting the world and the country around them, influenced American society during the period?
I think it's a two-way street: The movies were influenced by what was going on in American society as much as, probably more than, they were influencing anything. With the collapse of the old system of self-censorship, writers and directors had an unprecedented opportunity to address social concerns with fewer compromises in the storytelling, and they wrote about what was going on around them.
People always compare the indie film movement of the early-to-mid '90s with that of the '70s, but is such a comparison really valid? For one thing, do you think a major director today could come out of a B-movie environment like the one fostered by Roger Corman and others in the late 60s and throughout the '70s?
Corman's still at it, although I imagine a lot of his stuff goes straight to cable or video these days. And cable's certainly created a whole new cluster of made-for-TV movies, from Lifetime to Sci-Fi, that could give promising talent a grounding in the fundamentals just like American International and New World did for much of the '70s generation. These movies may not be "art," but they teach directors two important things: how to entertain, and how to keep a production on schedule and on budget. If you can do that, you will work, and at some point only your imagination can hold you back from doing something "major."
Well Corman may still be at it, but he certainly isn't a mentor for up-and-coming filmmakers as he once was. Maybe it's because of the relative ease of making a film these days thanks to digital video, but we haven't really seen any major filmmakers coming out of a similar B-movie tradition. Do you think that the output of those Corman-period directors, everyone from Ron Howard (Grand Theft Auto) to Demme (Caged Heat and Crazy Mama) to Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) to Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13) -- just to name a very few -- was just a lucky convergence of the era and the demise of the studio system?
There's definitely something to be said for that interpretation -- because while you do still have a vast "B-movie" industry operating today, I agree, you don't seem to see the sort of giant presence Corman used to hold within that world -- and, yes, digital video is going to liberate would-be filmmakers even further from apprenticing themselves on the grinder circuit. And, you're right, so much of the "golden age" of the '70s hinges on the fact that the studios were hitting a wall doing things the way they knew how to do them, and then there were all these young filmmakers who'd proven they could get results doing it their own way. Without getting into the talents of individual filmmakers, it's definitely hard to imagine a similar cluster emerging today.
I've read that you have a special affinity for The Muppet Movie. How do you think The Muppet Movie is a typical 70s film, and what makes it so special to you?
Well, the thing that makes it special for me is having seen it about half a dozen times when I was nine years old. I don't think there's any denying that Jim Henson was as much of a visionary as Coppola or Spielberg, but if you look at the film itself, the whole story is maybe a metaphor for the rise of all those freewheeling talents who decided they'd make the trek out to Hollywood, where they land "the standard rich and famous contract."
Do you remember seeing a lot of movies as a kid? Any specific memories from going to the movies in the '70s? Did your parents let you see R rated films?
Mostly I remember seeing Star Wars a couple times, and being ticked off at my dad for not taking me to see Grease because it was PG. (On the other hand, this was a guy who once took me and my brother, who was about four at the time, to see Stalag 17 because that's what was playing at the base theater that weekend.) The only R movie I remember seeing in the '70s was when I was supposed to be sleeping in the back of our station wagon while my mom watched The Choirboys at the drive-in; the car crash in the parking lot is indelibly imprinted on my brain.
What prompted you to start Beatrice.com, and where does the name come from? (As lit majors ourselves, we're assuming Dante?)
Actually, the site was named after Beatrice Foods, specifically the whole "Hi, we're Beatrice" ad campaign. I always hoped that one day they'd decide to get themselves online and come offer to buy the domain name from me, but it never happened
How did you get your job with Galleycat? How much of your day do you dedicate to writing for it?
I'd heard they were looking for a new columnist, and I made some sort of snarky comment on somebody's blog about how they must have thought I didn't want to be tainted with money, or they'd have asked me. Elizabeth Spiers, who was editing the site at the time, saw that and basically told me to show her what I had. She liked my clips, so she added me into the mix with Sarah Weinman, who she'd already brought on board. Now that I've gotten into my groove, I probably spend about two hours a day keeping up with the industry news and then figuring out what four stories I'm going to write about.
Are you aware of the recent deal between Random House and Focus Features? Do you think this will work any better than the strategic partnership that was supposed to exist between Talk Magazine and Miramax?
I'm aware of it, but it's unclear to me for now how successful it will be. I do know that a number of literary agents are concerned about the possible "slippage" of story ideas from publisher to studio, but it doesn't seem like that's given anybody real pause.
Should we count on more books from you -- and will they be about movies?
I do plan to write more books. Some of them will be about movies, some of them won't be as visually oriented as this one is. I'm figuring out right now which book proposal to turn in next. One day I may even manage to complete the novel that's been filling up my notebooks, and if they want to turn it into a movie, more power to them!
Did you ever have the urge to work behind the camera and create films rather than simply write about them?
I did have an ambition once to be a writer/director, which is how I ended up in film school, though I quickly gravitated the history/theory side of things. My one screenwriting class convinced me I'm too enamored of subplots to make it as a screenwriter.
Things to know about Ron:
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
That's a tossup between Nat Sherman, where I work on my book reviews while smoking cigars in cozy leather chairs, and Murray's Cheese Shop, which I hit on the way home whenever I have money left from Nat's. It's my one foodie indulgence.
Personality problem solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
Oh, I'm otaku-level obsessive on movies and books and comic books and music. There's a standard joke in my house that I'm not a Trekkie, even though I remember more about the show than some people who are. But I was like that even before I came to New York.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Thanks to caller ID, I no longer answer about 95% of my phone calls, so I don't get to yell at telemarketers who call on Saturday for breaking the Sabbath. But I still want to. Other than that, the only thing I can think of is when I went to see Spirited Away, and there were a bunch of little kids running around a few rows behind me during the trailers and into the opening credits, and I barked something like, "Are we quite ready to watch the film now?" Their mother shut them up pretty quickly after that.
311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
I had to use it to light a fire under the landlord's ass to fix a leak in the ceiling of our lobby after some tenant on the second floor had the brilliant idea to do their own plumbing repairs. They got results by the end of the week.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
It's the only city I know where you can eat three square meals a day just from stuff sold by guys with sidewalk carts -- and in the summer, you can even get ice cream for dessert from a passing Mister Softee!
Ron Hogan's book "The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane!" can be found at bookstores nationwide and at all the usual online outlets.
Ron will be conducting a book signing this Saturday 12/17 from Noon to 2 PM at Nat Sherman's on the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. UPDATE: Apparently there has been a small problem with the book signing and it will no longer be happening on Saturday.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei