Today, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly enjoys a position as one of the country’s most influential movie critics, his opinions read and respected (and sometimes reviled) by millions. Forty years ago he was a precocious middle-schooler who carried a transcript of the Chicago Seven trial in his pocket as he roamed downtown Ann Arbor, exploring the head shops and hanging with the hippies.
Soon after enrolling at the University of Michigan in 1976, Gleiberman was bit by the movie bug and began reviewing films for the Michigan Daily. He struck up a long-distance friendship with Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, who encouraged him in his writing and helped him to land his first job after graduation as a critic for the Boston Phoenix.
Though he now lives in Greenwich Village, Gleiberman makes regular return trips to Ann Arbor to visit family and friends. Over tea at Café Felix on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, he related what it was like to grow up in the countercultural milieu of Ann Arbor in the late ’60s and early ’70s, how that experience influenced his career as a film critic, and his thoughts and hopes on the future of journalism.
Were you born in Ann Arbor?
No, I wasn’t born in Ann Arbor, but I moved here when I was about five or six.
You were a young kid living here when Ann Arbor was at its radical peak. Were you aware of what was going on? Did the counterculture have an attraction for you, even as young as you were?
I was ten years old in 1969. I don’t know if I can speak for other kids, but growing up in Ann Arbor I very much felt the romance of the counterculture. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was 11. You felt all this energy burbling around.
Where it really kicked in for me was in seventh grade when I started to get a little older and was able to go downtown by myself. Then I got immersed in it. I still have these incredible memories of going to State Street and seeing underground newspapers, and going into the head shops like Middle Earth, which was then really a head shop. Seeing the black-light posters, seeing the underground comics, and even the beads that you would string. All of this was part of the same thing. It was part of this counterculture that was very, very real to me.
And I was into the politics then. I always say that I went through my radical Marxist-Leninist phase when I was 11, and then was smart enough to get out of it and become a centrist when I was twelve-and-a-half. But I really felt the romance of the counterculture. To me then as a kid it seemed like American culture was being changed in a good way by all of this hippie energy, which I think in a way that it was. It was very, very important to me. It really almost defined Ann Arbor for me, or defined what I loved most about Ann Arbor.
I used to have a transcript of the Chicago Seven trial that I would carry around with me and read all the time when I was in seventh grade. So I knew that by the time I was 12 years old that Ann Arbor was not just this kind of cool, fun, mellow place with a lot of candle shops, but that all of this stuff meant something, culturally – that Ann Arbor was at the forefront of things that were going on nationally. That was true, and I perceived it, and I thought it was really cool about Ann Arbor. It made me very proud of the kind of city it was. It just made me love the place.
My favorite thing to do was to go downtown. There was such a continuity among all these countercultural activities, that you felt like you were sort of participating in the counterculture just by going to play pinball.
When I was in junior high and high school, I really got into going to the city council meetings, after they’d elected the two members of the Human Rights Party. It was such a great weekly human drama in seeing these two Human Rights Party people, Nancy Wechsler and Jerry DeGrieck, be these kind of token hippies on this very straight city council. It was like the Chicago Seven trial every week, in miniature, in the way these people would clash with each other.
That’s as close as I ever got to being politically active. Because I am not an activist. As I grew older I started to develop a sort of disdain for protesters with signs, because I actually am a centrist at heart, and I think that protesters often call attention to nothing so much as themselves. I really am for political action getting done, and finding the middle way, and doing things. And yet, the protests did serve a function back then, and I really identified with it.
Also there was so much about the counterculture that wasn’t about politics. It was about music, it was about fashion, it was about drugs, it was about new ways of seeing. That’s the side of the counterculture that I really identified with.
There was a sense of optimism in those days, even though looking back it seems like it was a dark time for America.
Those were dark times for America. Yet all of that was giving such life to popular culture. That’s one of the reasons that the movies of the ’70s were so vital, and are now so mythologized. It was because popular culture was so vital back then. The incredible music, the incredible movies. How could you look at that stuff and not feel a certain optimism about America?
Yes, we had a corrupt government, we had a corrupt president. But the outrage at that was reflected in our popular culture, and we had a system that worked. We had a system that spat out the bad guys. And we had a press that sort of came to the rescue. So ultimately, although there was a lot of negativity, I don’t think the ’60s and ’70s were a negative time for America.
I think the beginning of the real negative time was the election of Ronald Reagan. I think that was the paradigm shift, because that’s when we went through the looking glass. That’s when we seemed to be moving into this greater optimism, but it was a phony optimism. I think that’s when we moved from the politics of reality to the politics of unreality. And I think that’s what led to where we are today.
Do you think that growing up in Ann Arbor had a significant effect on your later life?
I’ll tell you how I think that I’m totally a product of Ann Arbor. What I loved about the ’60s, and what I still do, is that there was something very hard-headed and no-bullshit about the Ann Arbor view. There’s always been a certain skepticism that the people in Ann Arbor have.
During the counterculture era they were skeptical of the lies being told by government. But I also grew up with a certain skepticism about the Left. I saw the kind of groupthink mentality that was there. It seemed to me that the Ann Arbor point of view that I learned was, don’t trust packaged truths, wherever they come from. Look for your own truth, and stick to that.
That, to me, was the real message of the counterculture. To be true to yourself, and to look at who you were as an individual, and express that. That’s what the ’60s meant to me. And that’s the side of Ann Arbor that I still try to carry into my work today.
Groupthink is what’s killing this country, in every form. There’s a lot of groupthink in my profession, film criticism. Even the mentality now that says you’re supposed to stand up for independent films, you’re supposed to stand up for small films.
Wait a minute – who said you’re supposed to stand up for any kind of film? You’re supposed to stand up for good movies. You’re supposed to stand up for your own individual, idiosyncratic judgments. That’s what I believe film criticism should be about.
Do you come back to Ann Arbor a lot? Is it a second home, or maybe a getaway of sorts?
In some ways I think of it like that. I love coming back here. There is a certain spirit of the place, that I think it still has, that I reconnect to. Everybody likes to reconnect with their roots, but in my case the roots are something I still believe in. They still nurture me.
I don’t know if I would be a film critic if I hadn’t grown up in a place like Ann Arbor. It always inspires me to come back here.
Tell me about your road to becoming a film critic. There was a thriving community of film buffs in town during the ’60s and ’70s. Were you a part of that?
Absolutely. The film culture in Ann Arbor is really what gave me my own start as a movie buff. I was nurtured in that environment. It’s what showed me what love of cinema was all about.
This was an era in which being a movie buff was just part of the atmosphere of the time. There was a phrase around in the ’70s, called the film generation. It was the idea that people who came of age around that time were maybe the first generation that saw film as their literature. That they took film seriously, the way that an earlier generation had taken novels. A lot of people on campuses felt that way. I mean, students were just really into going to the movies, and taking them seriously.
The University of Michigan was a big enough place to support a lot of film societies. And on certain nights you would go and these screenings would be packed. Especially if it was a certain kind of movie. A Woody Allen double feature on Saturday night would have lines around the Modern Languages Building. Screwball comedies, Hitchcock films, they got that kind of response. Other movies were more obscure, but in general there were a lot of people who went to these movies.
It doesn’t seem that surprising for Woody Allen to draw a big crowd at the campus cinema. What does surprise me is that crowds would turn out for a Bogart picture, or even a silent comedy by Chaplin or Keaton.
I think this was the first era where going to see old movies had become kind of cool. I think part of that was that the ’60s were about overthrowing a lot of old stuff, and about only seeing new things as cool.
But by the time the ’70s really settled down, a lot of that was over, and for the first time I think a lot of students started to go back to those earlier models of movie stars, and of romantic comedies, things like that, and realized these were incredible movies, too. And there was something actually quite cool about them.
At some point you started writing about movies for the Michigan Daily, and even took a turn as Arts Editor.
I think one of the things that really got me involved in the Daily is that in my second semester, freshman year, I had really connected with a couple of Robert Altman films that I got very excited about. That semester a student group put together a whole Robert Altman festival, where they showed all his films, and they had all these people from his films come and give talks, like Elliot Gould, and Joan Tewkesbury, writer of “Nashville.”
I decided I wanted to be involved in that, and to cover it for the Daily. It was covering that event over my whole second semester that sort of fused being a movie buff and writing, for me.
The Daily was a first-class newspaper in the 1960s, competing with the professional papers in the area, and often having its stories picked up by the national news media. How was it in your day?
I think it was pretty good. One thing I know for sure is that the attitude we had at the Daily was that, in addition to just wanting to put out a good paper and serve that community, we felt that we were competing with the Ann Arbor News.
Now, the Ann Arbor News wasn’t necessarily the greatest paper, but they were a respectable paper, and they were a real paper, and they were professionally staffed. We just took it for granted that they were our competition, and I think that was a healthy attitude to have. How often did we scoop them, or do better coverage, I don’t know. But I think that was the right attitude to have.
What are your thoughts about the folding of the Ann Arbor News?
Well, from what I’ve read, they did it in part as an experiment. Ann Arbor was considered one of the most wired communities in the United States. So this was an experiment to see if a town that was sophisticated, that had a lot of people that used the Web, like Ann Arbor, could make the transition to getting their news online, as opposed to reading a newspaper. If in fact the experiment – a rather reckless experiment, I’d say – was successful, then it would sort of show how this could happen in other communities.
I believe what’s happened so far – and this is very anecdotal because I don’t live here, but I do know people in Ann Arbor so I try to keep up with this a little bit – my feeling is that if I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that the community of Ann Arbor misses the Ann Arbor News. That they still miss it, and it’s not just nostalgia.
What that paper provided, a sense of the information in one place, a sense that everybody would be reading that same information that you read – that gave you something. It gave you a certain feeling of unity about the information in the community, which is what a newspaper provides, and that that has not really been replaced.
If that’s true, then I would say the experiment was not really a success, and may actually aid the preservation of newspapers. Because yes, they’re up against it economically, yes, their business plan has been eroded, yes, it’s going to continue to happen. But if people genuinely like newspapers and continue to find a use for them, then that’s a reason to keep them around.
Would you say then that you’re cautiously optimistic about the future of journalism?
I think that moving into the digital era doesn’t need to affect writing that much. I mean, I’m not sure there needs to be a mystical difference between reading a piece through a digital medium or reading it on dead trees. I don’t know if the definition of a good piece of writing has really changed. I don’t know if people’s hunger for good writing has really gone away.
Now, of course, the big question in journalism is, people seem willing to pay for journalism and writing if it’s on dead trees, and they seem hostile to paying for it digitally. That’s the big question looming for journalists. Will we ever get to a point where people actually want to pay to read things digitally?
My feeling is, maybe yes. Certainly that’s what I think should be. But going forward that’s a great unknown.
About the writer: Alan Glenn is currently at work a documentary film about Ann Arbor in the ’60s. Visit the film’s website for more information.