Monday, March 5, 2007

Q&A: Elvis Mitchell (pt. 1)

Many thanks to photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for permission to post the portrait above.

I’ve been a fan of Elvis Mitchell’s journalism for 20 years. His 1987 Eddie Murphy cover story for Interview magazine, for example, is a lifetime keeper.

A multimedia cultural commentator par excellence, Elvis hosts a weekly radio show in Los Angeles (“The Treatment” on KCRW), and come September he’ll have an interview show on Turner Classic Movies called “Under the Influence with Elvis Mitchell.”

He has had a lot of cool jobs. From 2000 to 2004, Elvis was a film critic for the New York Times. He’s been a visiting lecturer at Harvard. Even the jobs he almost had are way cooler than most people’s jobs, like when he had a standing offer to join the writing staff of “Saturday Night Live.”

When I sat down for dinner and conversation with him last December, Elvis had spent the day with Quentin Tarantino and David Chute recording a DVD commentary track for “Five Fingers of Death.”

Elvis Mitchell is one of the hippest dudes I know. When I walked into the restaurant, Elvis was in there smoking a cigar. I thought they shot people for that in L.A. Elvis said it was cool. “They know me here.”
DAVID MILLS: Let’s talk about growing up in Detroit. What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? What did your folks do for a living?

ELVIS MITCHELL: I grew up in what Elvis Presley called “the ghitto.” We were really poor. My dad worked two full-time jobs, and my mom raised nine kids.

I actually wrote a piece for the [New York] Times about working my dad’s jobs. He worked at a dairy plant during the day and a laundry at night. And I worked his jobs. This is how shallow I was: I was late for one of the jobs because a valet parker couldn’t find my car at the hotel. A different experience than my father had.

MILLS: (laughs) Okay. In the era you grew up in, did Detroit feel like the capital of Black America?

MITCHELL: It felt like the capital of so many things, because people tend to think of Detroit as just Motown but so much stuff grew out of Detroit.

When I was a kid was when George Clinton and P-Funk were just starting to kick it off. We would go to these shows, me and my friends, and it would be, like, four black kids and a bunch of white kids from Toronto.

MILLS: Seeing Funkadelic?

MITCHELL: Yeah, seeing Funkadelic. Because in those days, white people went to rock-’n’-roll shows and black people went to R&B shows. …

It was also a great jazz city. Detroit’s the home of electronica. Detroit’s where Iggy Pop – basically punk started in Detroit. Almost every major musical movement post-World-War-II got a toehold or started in Detroit, with the exception of rap. I don’t care what Chicago says, house started in Detroit, end of conversation, thank you.

Motown was kind of the corporate music of that time, because there was so much other great music going on around it. One of the oldest jazz clubs in the country, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, is still active in Detroit.

I saw Richard Pryor as a kid because my uncle had a club in Detroit. We sat in and watched Richard Pryor come out. Watching him walk onto the stage was like what I imagine it must have been like watching Marlon Brando when he was onstage. I mean, he had this enormous physical presence. He was just wired.

So we were sitting there, my uncle said to me and my cousin, “Sit here, drink your Cokes and don’t say a word. Shut up.” Place was full of pimps – big rabbit-fur hats, big coats hanging off of them, really ugly hookers sitting around at these tables. And Pryor comes out and he just started pacing back and forth.

Finally, after – I’m not kidding – about four minutes of not saying anything, just walking back and forth, he looks up at one of these tables and goes, “Damn, y’all got some ugly hoes in Detroit. I wouldn’t fuck her with your mama’s dick.”

And the bartender covered his mouth. I was too shocked to laugh. And all you heard in the place was the sound of knives and straight razors and guns being dropped on the tables. All I thought was: “How’m I gonna tell my mother that I’m at this place that she hates – my uncle’s place – where a man was shot?” Because I knew they were gonna kill him.

Within minutes, he turned it back on himself and talked about his own desperation, and he had them eating out of the palm of his hand. He started by going after them, and then made it about him. It was an incredible thing to see because it was the first time I was ever aware of seeing a performer who could pull people into whatever psychological state he was going through. Which made him different from any comedian I’ve seen before or since.

MILLS: Were you a movie fan all along?

MITCHELL: Always a movie fan. Detroit was for a long time a test market. For example, when I was in college I got to see the version of “Blade Runner” without narration, because they tested it there. Sam Fuller’s “White Dog” – the only theater it ever played in the United States was in Detroit. So it was a great city to see movies in.

It was a great place to be entertained, because it was a working-class city. People who work that hard wanted to really let off some steam at the end of the workday.

MILLS: Were you always a writer? Or did that start in college?

MITCHELL: Writing was what I ended up doing instead of going to law school. I had this really interesting experience where I started school [at Wayne State University] on a theater scholarship, and hated being around college actors so much that I dropped out of school after two years. If there’s anybody more pretentious than college actors, they don’t speak English. It was really just kind of mortifying.

MILLS: You acted? Which plays did you do?

MITCHELL: We did this really interesting version of “Henry IV, Part 1” where the professors set it up as if it were gangs in Detroit. It was really an incredible way to do this, and it instilled in me this kind of love of Shakespeare, the military plays.

And also the only Shakespeare play that’s really about a black character, which is “Titus Andronicus.” Not “Othello,” but “Titus Andronicus.” The first person I ever met who really sort of got that was Julie Taymor, who did the movie “Titus” and dealt with that.

We staged a version of “Native Son” that must have been the tackiest play ever done. There was supposed to be a rat onstage, and we had somebody pulling a fur hat across the stage. People burst out laughing.

I probably wasn’t temperamentally suited for it. I get too impatient so I lost interest, and I quit school. I went back after being out of school for six months and not wanting to go work in an auto plant. ’Cause I knew that I was basically too shallow to be a real working man for a living.

So I went back to college. I was in philosophy for a while, which was both pretentious and depressing. I was always taking English classes, and had a couple of professors who really encouraged me.

I had a revelatory experience when I was in college. Pauline Kael came to speak. She was on a local TV show, and she was going to go do a radio show. I knew the producer of the show so I thought, “I’m just going to go over there and watch her speak live.”

I showed up at this station and she was sitting in the lobby by herself. I sat down next to her and we just started talking.

Then they said, “Okay, Miss Kael, you’re on.” And she grabbed me by the arm to take me with her. I said, “I’m not on the show with you.” She said, “I know. Just come with me.” And that began my friendship with her, and that was probably key to me being a writer. She was the first person outside of my family who had any real confidence in me as a writer.

MILLS: Wow. I wanted to ask you about her because I first met you through [Washington Post critics] Hal Hinson and Lloyd Rose. Pauline Kael is famous for having had this “circle.” And I never got to the bottom of what it was about. Was it a cult of personality? Was it just a group of friends?

MITCHELL: It was probably both of those things. A lot of people sort of looked to her as both an idol and a mother figure. But I had a very healthy relationship with my parents so I didn’t need another mother. So I looked at her as being a friend.

The thing about Pauline was, if you didn’t want to know what she thought, “Don’t ask me,” because she would tell you. And she was brutal. I remember one of the first times I’d sent her something, I was in college, and I called her up. And three hours later she was still telling me what was wrong with it. I was thinking: “I’m paying money for this phone call!”

But she was incredibly generous to me as a friend. And really sort of made me think that there was a place for me outside of Detroit. One of the reasons I left Detroit was that she wrote me a letter of recommendation when I graduated from school to take to the Detroit Free Press. And they wouldn’t hire me.

So I thought: “If I can’t get hired with a letter from the film critic of the New Yorker – the most famous film critic in the United States, and arguably in the world – it’s time for me to leave.” And I did.

Subsequently I came to L.A. and started getting work out here almost immediately.

MILLS: As a critic?

MITCHELL: As a critic, yeah. I was originally writing about television because at that point, when I came out here, everybody was a film critic. But TV was going through a really exciting period in those days [the 1980s].

So I started doing that, and got hired at the old L.A. Herald-Examiner, then got hired at Rolling Stone, then got hired at Spin. I’ve gotten really lucky just by virtue of being here.

On the other hand, if I had gotten a job at the Detroit Free Press, I would probably still be there.



Reel Fanatic said...

Great interviewer .. though there are a lot of great movie reviewers out there, Mr. Mitchell is my favorite .. He just manages to be a man of the people and still keep is discerning tastes perfectly

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for commenting, Keith. As much as I miss him in the NYTimes, I think he belongs on TV. I love his personal style and his interviewing technique.

Adam said...

I miss getting to read his reviews every week. It was just fun watching the associations his brain would make. From his review of Pirates of the Caribbean:

Gargling his consonants before spitting them out, Mr. Depp's pirate suggests a man who has spent either a great deal of time with Keith Richards after a tour of the Rebel Yell factory, or a man who has spent a great deal of time watching Mike Myers do his Keith Richards impression. Either way, festooned with dreadlocks and braids in his hair and beard, and wearing enough industrial-strength mascara to indicate that Captain Jack was probably influenced by another King of the Wild Frontier — Adam Ant — Mr. Depp offers a ratty, bedeviled turn that keeps the picture in motion during that extended period when there's not much plot involved.

But when this protracted state of narrative lassitude suddenly shifts, "Pirates" brings in enough story line for several movies. And in the words of Bart Simpson, it takes a knife-wielding maniac to show us the way.

Undercover Black Man said...

Adam: The term "mash-up" is becoming a cliche, but in that review you cited, Elvis shows what a mash-up is all about.

justjudith said...

great interview. especially the part about his college days. it sounds as if he just stumbled into a great career and lots of people do. i try to tell the students i work with that if you're talented, it'll work out. can't wait for part II.