Film critic Elvis Mitchell will receive the Rogue Award and give a talk at the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which runs April 2-6 in Ashland. Photo courtesy aiff

On changing roles in cinema

People ask critic Elvis Mitchell whether he was influenced by Pauline Kael, The New Yorker's film critic in the 1970s and '80s.

"She was a friend," Mitchell says over the phone in a voice familiar to listeners of "Weekend Edition" on National Public Radio. "But it was Baldwin who was my influence."

He's talking about author James Baldwin and his 1976 essay "The Devil Finds Work," in which Baldwin, not known as a film critic, wrote about his experience with movies and criticized the racial politics of movies down through the ages.

Mitchell, the recipient of this year's Rogue Award from the Ashland Independent Film Festival, will give a talk titled "Cinema: Past, Present and Future" as the centerpiece of a special AIFF event at noon Saturday, April 4, at the Historic Ashland Armory, 208 Oak St., Ashland. Tickets are $10. Call 488-3823.

Mitchell's remembrance of his seminal encounter with Baldwin goes back to 1980, when Mitchell was an English major at Wayne State University in Detroit. He was at the movies, a twinbill of "Mad Max" and "Arthur."

When Baldwin walked in, Mitchell approached him.

The renowned writer talked with him about his impressions of movies, including such personal details as how Bette Davis' eyes had affected him as a young man.

"That was the key for me," Mitchell says.

Mitchell is best-known for his film reviews on NPR and as the host of "Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence" on Turner Classic Movies. He was a film reviewer for the New York Times and part of the PBS show "The Edge." He's a filmmaker himself, having produced "The Black List" with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a film about race, culture and success with Toni Morrison, Chris Rock, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others, and a follow-up called "The Black List Part 2" with Angela Davis, Tyler Perry and others.

The first film will be shown at 3 p.m. on April 4 and the second at noon on April 5, both at the Varsity Theatre as part of the film festival.

Mitchell says his talk will be about the changing role of African-Americans in film, and what that may look like in the near future "now that the complexion of the White House has taken on a change."

He says films do reflect the larger politics of their eras. In the 1970s young filmmakers came to prominence with a counterculture outlook and anger about the Vietnam War. By the 1980s and Ronald Reagan, big films were often celebrations of success.

" 'Risky Business' was a way of saying the '70s were over," Mitchell says, referring to the changed denouement tacked onto the film after focus-groups demanded a happy ending.

As a print guy, a radio personality, a TV host, a filmmaker and an academic (a visiting lecturer at Harvard), Mitchell jokes that he prefers "whichever medium that will pay me money."

He says he's incredibly lucky. He says print reporting is the most challenging because of the preparation required.

"It's really fun," he says. "One of the great benefits of being in print is you do your own research. Sometimes it's so much fun you can lose sight of what you're working on."

Mitchell fell into criticism by accident. He had a work-study job as an engineer at the Wayne State radio station, and one day the film critic quit. He was asked whether he wanted to try his hand.

"Are you kidding?" he thought. "Seeing movies for free?"

His first job after college was as a TV reporter at the Oakland Press outside Detroit, where he laid out pages and had to dummy the TV grids.

Mitchell's view of the critic's job is that it's done best when the critic helps readers understand what a film is trying to accomplish.

"Kael was writing after films had been in theaters," he says. "They don't get to do that now. It's all about commerce."

He thinks it's a fascinating time for film — if not for Hollywood.

"Unfortunately, many good films don't see the light of day outside festivals."

A Wikipedia entry on Mitchell says that he "takes on a freewheeling — some might say stream of consciousness — approach, and threads a good deal of intertextuality into his work by referencing other films."

"I don't know how to take something like that," he says after a pause. "I try not to rehash plot. If you're not doing that, you're releasing your own impression."

As far as intertextuality, or the shaping of a text's meaning by borrowing from or referring to other texts, he pleads guilty.

"I think because film is influenced by everything — filmmakers read books and watch TV and go to other movies — I try to draw in all those points," he says. "They don't exist as islands."

Which sounds almost like something James Baldwin might say.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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