Films of Endearment: 8 Questions for Michael Koresky
Author: Sarah Fonseca
September 2, 2021
It’s often said that the easiest way to become a writer is through doing. But of equal importance is having one’s work read and appraised by veteran writers. As far as queer film criticism goes, few have done as much reading or appraising as Michael Koresky. A co-editor-in-chief of Museum of the Moving Image’s Reverse Shot, Michael has championed emerging and established film critics over the years, including K. Austin Collins, Caden Mark Gardner, Demitra Kampakis, and yours truly. Through incisive line edits and encouragement, Michael has helped shape dozens upon dozens of movie reviews, essays, and interviews into go-to texts.
The author of several monographs, Michael’s new book, Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us, takes this a step further by exploring his own filmic awakening through a delightful set of films he first viewed with his mother decades ago. At once informative and decadently nostalgic, Films of Endearment shows us that writing and appraisal are only part of being a critic; a genuine love of the movies must reside just beneath skills.
This summer, I had the pleasure of chatting with Michael in passing about his new book, the elision of criticism with queer theory, and understanding one’s family through the picture show.
Film criticism has always struck me as the choice criticism of those impossibly curious about everything the world has to offer. What core interests underpin your film writing practice?
If Films of Endearment was, in part, a way to figure out the origins of my taste in film art, then I would need to go back and explore why my love for film manifests as a need to express it in words—which are, let’s face it, intrinsically antithetical to the audiovisual medium of film itself. It clearly has something to do with “expressing the inexpressible,” and perhaps trying to find ways to define everything around us, to put into words the sensations we feel at all times.
I have been writing film criticism in earnest for more than 25 years now and I still don’t think I’ve unlocked it, in a way. But I do know that as I’ve aged, the type of criticism I want to practice has evolved, or perhaps transmogrified. I think this has something to do, at heart, with the movement from naivete to disillusionment—and perhaps back again—that comes with age, and which can make everything seem fruitless. In other words, as one ages, anyone with eyes and a heart gets angrier at the state of the world, and the way that it treats and casts outsiders, and the way mass culture grinds one down, and I think this affects anyone’s art, and certainly anyone’s criticism. And does one move in tandem with that anger or do you begin to reject it? And does it become harder—and more pointless— to describe the contours of a world that so disappoints? I think especially when one exists outside of the falsely safe confines of academia—and the world of ideas it promises—it becomes particularly hard to engage without disenchantment. Criticism can be a safety net from this, which is perhaps why I continue.
I have written about seeing a photograph of Marlon Brando, filthy and shirtless, from A Streetcar Named Desire as being my explosive moment…. [W]hen I saw it, I was thunderstruck. It was like having a Penthouse magazine in my bedroom…. I wouldn’t actually see Streetcar until years later, and probably held my breath waiting for the scene. It didn’t disappoint.
One of my favorite moments in Films of Endearment is when you explore your disinterest in having children through the lens of the Nancy Meyers-produced film Baby Boom (dir. Charles Shyer, 1987). What moved me was simple: I seldom hear men, and particularly queer men, discuss the pressure foisted on them to reproduce (be it out of familial obligation or the greater good of the U.S. economy). I was further charmed when you brought Maggie Nelson and Eve Sedgewick’s theoretical writings into the matter.
Tell me about the process for “conceiving” this chapter.
Each chapter had to cut to some core truth about myself, as well as about my mother, and each also had to rationalize why a particular film was chosen—the resonance it had for us then, and the lasting thoughts and ideas it summons now. In the case of the 1987 chapter, “Kids,” I felt driven to figure out why Nancy Meyers’s film holds my mother in thrall to this day and also why it both delights and repels me. Of course, in its most basic way, the movie is about parenthood, and the ways in which society—one’s boss, one’s partner, one’s environment—dictates one’s choices in life. I realized that my mother loved Baby Boom for the way it partly justified her own life choices: the move from the city to the suburbs, the decision to raise children though not completely give up work.
Meanwhile, I was fascinated by it for the ways in which it felt so wildly different from my own personal and professional experiences. With the essential passing of gay rights bills and Supreme Court landmarks, gay life has become more protected and acceptable to mainstream society, but I’m hardly the first to point out that there are attendant losses to our culture and identity that come with such assimilation. For me, one of the benefits of being gay has always been that I don’t have to worry about being pressured to have children—or so I thought. I don’t feel a ticking biological clock, and I’ve never felt a kinship with children, and it feels strange to have to justify that these days (not to mention the prohibitive cost of two men having a child, whether through surrogacy or adoption, and the underlying disgust I feel about the process of “designer babies”).
So, despite not being interested in procreation, there now exists the question of whether my husband and I want to have kids, and the idea that we’re somehow aberrant for not wanting to. Perhaps not wanting to is indeed the best way these days to maintain that core sense of aberration that one may want to maintain in one’s gay experience!
The moving image is a conducive space to foster burgeoning queerness. Do you remember the first film that stoked your own feelings of being a bit Different from the Others, if you will?
I have written about seeing a photograph of Marlon Brando, filthy and shirtless, from A Streetcar Named Desire as being my explosive moment. I had a little book of movie quotes given to me by a relative, and there was a picture of him under the word “Stella!” and when I saw it, I was thunderstruck. It was like having a Penthouse magazine in my bedroom. (I had those, too, of course, thanks to my dad’s barely hidden stash; go figure). I wouldn’t actually see Streetcar until years later, and probably held my breath waiting for the scene. It didn’t disappoint. In terms of identification, I’d probably have to give some credit to Little Shop of Horrors, an intrinsically queer movie that came out when I was seven. I was all but obsessed with it, and it especially fostered a desire for the skid row furs and stilettos couture of Ellen Greene. It’s really a fetish movie.
For me, this project—which was so essentially about womanhood of the latter half of the twentieth century—was thoroughly invigorating. The greatest surprise overall while working on it was the great extent to which I found myself so taken with women and so incredibly disinterested in men.
While the set of films you selected in Films of Endearment certainly operates as a sturdy outline, how did you navigate the plotting of personal anecdotes, and emotional crests?
It’s all about trusting that sturdy outline. The book could have been structured in so many ways, so once I happened upon the one-year-one-decade linear trajectory, I had to hope the rest would fall into place. I certainly had some doubts or fears that I was “blowing my wad,” as it were, by frontloading a lot of the emotional material in the book, but I had to trust it. I do think that the 1981 to 1984 chapters are the most emotionally intense, and they seem to have a planned outline: going from my mother’s childhood abuse (1981) to my own coming out (1982) to my father’s sickness and death (1983) to how that affects my experience of home and financial insecurity (1984) feels, in a way, like a complete arc, but that’s the order it went in because those ideas and themes were connected inextricably to Mommie Dearest; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Terms of Endearment; and Country. So I often thought, “shit, what if people just don’t connect with the rest?” They could just put it down. But then I found ways of creating a linear narrative within this seemingly random superstructural choice, such as bringing in more anecdotes about my family’s life that fit into other chapters and also calling attention to the passing of the seasons within the 16 months in which the book was researched and written. So there was a lot of attention paid to creating a cohesive whole; but that became easier as the book went along and I started to become more confident in it.
Films of Endearment focuses on your mother’s feminine gaze. Was there a surprise takeaway from diving so deep into American womanhood and your feminine lineage?
For me, this project—which was so essentially about womanhood of the latter half of the twentieth century—was thoroughly invigorating. The greatest surprise overall while working on it was the great extent to which I found myself so taken with women and so incredibly disinterested in men. I know this might sound obvious, considering the idea for the book, and the fact that gay men are often mythologizing and self-mythologizing their obsession with “actresses.”
When going back and looking at the history of cinema, you do realize just how marginalized female experience is from the main narrative, and, in a way, that is fairly parallel to queer experience. And this is likely why the two often go hand-in-hand for so many. The Movies—as we came to know them, and as our parents certainly knew them—just aren’t that interested. And as a result, they’re often just not that interesting. In terms of my own personal feminine lineage, I’d say that I more fully came away with a sense of myself as made more in my mother’s image than my father’s. That’s something I knew on an instinctual level, perhaps, but had never really thought of so literally.
If you had to rewrite Films of Endearment as a book about your father, which decade would you focus on, and which film would be your first choice?
Great question! It would have to be a different era completely, as we didn’t connect over movies when I was young. I would either go with the fifties, so I could get a better sense of his life as a child, or the nineties, when he started taking me to movies while we went on his business trips all over New England. He was a traveling salesman, and we stayed in motels all over Connecticut and Maine, and sometimes after work, he’d take me to some multiplex and we’d see more traditionally masculine movies I wouldn’t see with my mother. If I were doing the fifties, I’d start with The Creature from the Black Lagoon, because he always talked about it, and always talked about B monster movies from the era—and also it’s such a queer text! If I were doing the nineties, I’d start with Braveheart, which we saw together and liked, but which I now know to be a heinous movie and one of the most popular of all anti-queer texts!
One of the sweetest moments in your book, for me, is when you mentioned reading the gay critic Mark Harris in your youth—years before you two became colleagues. What would your younger self say if he knew you two would one day be co-conspirators?
I feel like my teenage self would shy away in mortification, and then run back to his bedroom and pop in the VHS of Persona for the 80th time on his 13-inch TV screen! I wasn’t exactly Mr. Social! But it’s so funny and strange to think that someone who had such an indirect effect on you could end up something like a peer (though Mark is so accomplished). Culture moves in mysterious waves and ways. I can’t thank Mark enough for his support, also. When I first started working at Film at Lincoln Center, and working on Film Comment, one of the first things I did in 2016 was to reach out to Mark to see if he’d write a state of queer mainstream movie representation for the magazine. I was tickled that he said yes.
You’re an editor for New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image’s film magazine Reverse Shot by day. I’ve been subjected to your one-of-a-kind line edits myself over the years. Did the writing of your book (or its themes) ever sweetly dovetail with this 9-to-5 work?
With writing and editing, everything always feels like it’s part of the same ship I’m trying to steer…to some unknown destination. Throughout my career, I’ve always had things to do on the side of a 9-to-5 job. I consider myself very, very lucky that my 9-to-5 jobs have been within my desired field, of course. When I was working at The Criterion Collection, I was able to work on the Terence Davies book; while I was at Interview, CC, and later Film at Lincoln Center, I could work on Reverse Shot on the side; and I wrote and co-directed a feature, Feast of the Epiphany, while I was working at Metrograph and then FLC. Now that I’m officially working at the Museum, and making RS part of my actual daily work, it’s important for me to find other things to keep my mind creatively fulfilled.
It all feels part of the same continuum. When it comes to editing, I truly feel like I’m learning from each and every writer I edit, so I’m sure that on many levels that work makes its way into my own writing. The beauty of rigorous editing is that it’s beneficial to both writer and editor; hopefully, we both learn so much from paying attention to every word choice and every sentence structure. I’m particularly excited about the ascendant generation of film critics, and especially the new crop of queer critics, from whom I learn so much. And I sometimes wish I were a part of it—I didn’t have their (your) confidence when I was that age. Such a bounty of ideas out there.
Films of Endearment by Michael Koresky Hanover Square Press Hardcover, 9781335773791, pp. 288 May 2021