Bright Lights, Big Cine: Interview with Bright Lights’ Editor Gary Morris

gary 751498(Originally published on Film Threat)

As the world of words slowly abandons print for digital, traditional publications birth stepchildren they call "online components." In the case of film writing, highbrow mags like Film Comment and Cineaste may seem die-hard for the old-school form. Yet, both publish online-exclusive articles, usually mentioned in the print version's index. The move could be for advertising's sake, or maybe a step towards their new form, with the magazine and newspaper businesses having hit the hardest times ever.

Meanwhile, pubs like the one you are reading, are proud to be fully digital. Bright Lights Film Journal, which offers some of the finest film writing out there, took the gamble and went virtual in 1996 after an on-off history in print, since 1974. Bright Lights' editor Gary Morris has felt at home in the newer, flexible, far-reaching format. I checked in with Morris over email to discuss his publication, his history in film culture, and his new book, Action! (Anthem Press), a collection of interviews by the writers who have helped make Bright Lights into a unique voice.

Tell me how Bright Lights Film Journal came about.

I’d been fascinated by books and publishing, as well as film, from a young age. My parents were quite broad-minded, and let me read anything I wanted and also go to just about any movie I pleased. I gravitated to the grindhouses in downtown Cincinnati to watch genre movies by Roger Corman, Mario Bava, the AIP beach party movies, Douglas Sirk melodramas, and so on. So that formed an early interest in exploitation and marginal cinema. When I was 15, the Gebhardts, an arty couple next door, took me under their wing and introduced me to experimental and underground cinema – Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, etc. And one of the local “art cinemas” exposed me to the canon of world cinema: Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and the rest of the gang.

I published my first zine in 1967 at 16, a collection of poems, stories, and drawings by the people on my street. After college (where I studied English Lit and film), I became a typesetter. I can see in hindsight that I must have had at least vague plans to continue self-publishing; that would explain the typesetting. I learned basic layout and became a film critic for the local rag where I worked. Other parts of the puzzle soon fell into place. My brother was a lithographer willing to lend his skills. And I was hooked up with a group of East Coast auteurists – mainly Howard Mandelbaum, Roger McNiven, Robert Smith, and Jeff Wise – who helped expand my taste and also had experience publishing zines and director monographs at the University of Connecticut. They also had access to a large archive of movie stills, spanning decades, which they let me use. In 1974 I sprung the first issue of Bright Lights on an unsuspecting public.

What were your goals when you launched Bright Lights as a print mag? Were you trying to serve a new niche in criticism?

In my pretentious youth, I did imagine I could provide an American version of the European auteurist magazines like Positif and Cahiers du Cinema, with articles inspired by (and inspiring) raging debates about the worth of this or that auteur, where he or she belonged in Sarris’s pantheon, etc. However, my own cinematic interests soon strayed outside hard-core auteurism into wanting to profile studios, genres, and actors. Also maligned genres like exploitation and erotica, and sociological and political slants, particularly film as cultural propaganda, were fascinating to me. So while Bright Lights did feature plenty of director studies and interviews, per the original mandate, there were other approaches to film that I was/am able to highlight. I also wanted to loosen things up by keeping the magazine hard to predict or pigeonhole. For example, mixing academic-style articles with more popular/populist ones – kind of like programming a double feature of, say, Mario Bava’s "Five Dolls for an August Moon" with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.

Was bringing Bright Lights to the internet a smooth transition? What new opportunities did the web provide you?

It was tricky in those early days. While I was a typesetter by trade, I had no programming knowledge and didn’t even know html. My pal George Brown (who had designed and produced some of the print issues) was more computer savvy and guided the transition in 1995. The issues were hand-coded, which took time. But the benefits of switching to digital were pretty quickly evident.

Take something as simple as a factual error. With print publication, I could put an erratum notice in the following issue; online, I simply went in and fixed it. On a bigger scale, the magazine’s reach was vast. I soon had readers in places like Iran and Yemen, where I could never have sent the print issues. (I did distribute the print issues outside the U.S., but only to Europe and Australia.) Eventually, there would be websites for ranking the site that told me who and where the readers were. It’s unlikely – impossible, really – that Bright Lights could have had 200,000 readers in a month in its print form. Online that’s our average, and sometimes it’s more.

The production process is simple, fast, and cheap these days. No pesky halftones, color separations, printing companies, maxed-out credit cards, partners threatening divorce because of neglect, etc. to worry about.

I also like the fact that there are no length restrictions. I could rarely accommodate a 12,000-word article in the print version of Bright Lights, but I’ve had a number of pieces that long online. I recently rejected a 20,000-word article but not just because of the length. It made sense to turn this into the book, and it will be soon, a book-length study of Carrie.

Another online plus is being able to correspond directly and immediately with readers, whether it’s addressing an error, reading a submission, or simply enjoying the camaraderie. It’s also easy to have the entire archive available to readers – a quite substantial one now that we’re working on Issue 67. And keeping the magazine free is easy since the production costs are so low. Though we are starting to look into ads lately.

Finally, unlike print publication where the magazine is a sort of monolithic entity, with online publishing there’s a kind of massive fragmentation at work. Readers can enter and exit a particular article without seeing or knowing anything about the rest of the magazine. That means I can include many different types of articles without worrying too much about rigid consistency, “brand identity,” and such.

What other publications were influential to Bright Lights, and which ones are still an inspiration?

Velvet Light Trap, Photon, and Cinema were three magazines I admired back then, along with Sight and Sound, Jump Cut, Cineaste, Films in Review, and Film Heritage. For those more fanboy moods, I read things like the late Castle of Frankenstein, Film Threat, Asian Trash Cinema, Psychotronic Video, and The Big Reel (recently folded into Classic Images). I continue to enjoy all of those magazines that are available (mostly online), and would single out Tim Lucas’s Video Watchdog as an outstanding publication.

What films/filmmakers do you like to cover? I know that Bright Lights has pages devoted to genres ranging from film noir to tranny cinema.

I like to keep the scope as wide as possible, to reflect the broadest taste and burrowing into little-known personalities and non-mainstream genres along with recent and mainstream stuff. Since I like everything from canonical works to exploitation and erotica to underground film to animation, I want the magazine to be equally inclusive. Isn’t that how many film fans experience cinema? Bright Lights' regular writers cover pretty much whatever they like, whether it’s Jack Stevenson discussing 1960s Danish porn or Alan Vanneman riffing on Chaplin or Imogen Smith profiling Tatsuya Nakadai. I’ve personally followed a lot of queer and tranny cinema over the years and like writing about it. I’ve also got a taste for obscurantism, and love featuring virtual unknowns like Japanese silent actress Tokuko Nagai Takagi, who died in 1919. Aaron Cohen managed to write her up for Bright Lights despite the fact that there don’t seem to be any pictures of her besides one postcard, much less any films!

Do you see online criticism as more democratic – in that more critical voices can chime in, and a larger variety of film forms can be discussed?

Definitely more democratic. Like everything the Internet touches, online film criticism is helping us loosen the stranglehold of an elite that determines what’s worthy of discussion and what’s not. Simply accepting what a self-appointed vanguard tells us is worthwhile kills creativity and imagination. Manny Farber and David Thomson are great, but so are David Hudson and Kim Morgan online. Between various websites and blogs, it’s possible to read detailed, passionate analyses of anything from Mizoguchi’s "Sansho the Bailiff" to such endearing dogs as "The Turkish Wizard of Oz." While venues like the New York Times still resonate as authoritative with some readers, people are increasingly just as likely to check out reviews by unknowns or lesser-knowns who post reviews on the Internet Movie Data Base or their own blogs and websites. Conventional wisdom isn’t necessarily wise.

How do you feel about the everyone's-a-critic blogosphere? Do you fear getting lost with a gazillion film sites out there?

Not really. I believe most people can differentiate between the “god this sucks!” fanboys and those who can say something new or meaningful about a film. Plus, not being driven by a single ideology or approach (except a leftist political orientation I won’t deny) should keep Bright Lights visible in the sea of competitors for the foreseeable future.

I enjoyed Jonathan Rosenbaum's foreword to your new book, Action!, in which he comments on the interview as a form of film criticism. What place do you feel the interview has in film culture?

Personally, I love reading interviews and believe others do, too. There’s nothing like going to the source, even if the source is an “unreliable narrator.” For anyone who wants the scoop on the circumstances of production, the director’s intention vs. the realization, even (or especially?) the more dishy aspects of director-actor relations on set, nothing beats an interview.

Rosenbaum refers to Truffaut's book-length interview with Hitchcock as a cornerstone in the critical form. What interview texts were influential to your creating this collection?

The Hitchcock/Truffaut book is indeed seminal, not least because this is two brilliant film artists in a robust, intimate conversation. Other useful books in the genre for me were Peter Bogdanovich’s The Devil Made Me Do It; Eric Sherman’s Directing the Film; and Andrew Sarris’s Interviews with Film Directors.

Some writers feel that the interview takes the criticism out of the critic's hands. Can you comment on this?

I’d say it doesn’t have to. If an interview is simply boilerplate, or if the director “steals” the interview from the interviewer without making it fresh or agreeing to some level of honesty or probing, it’s a problem. The best interviews should amount to a kind of de facto analysis based on the particular alchemy of two minds focused on one subject.

Do you think that a good interview can do the job of a mini critical biography? I know that the interviews in your book with great talkers, like Robert Wise and Peter Bogdanovich, seem really full bodied, while some are rather spare.

Absolutely. As with Bright Lights, I wanted the book to reflect a wide range of talents, eras, and even styles of interview – something for everybody. Kind of like a film festival where you have a shorts program, individual films, and director retrospectives. I like the idea of going to a book and finding something that matches my mood, whether for a brisk read or a more in-depth study. So that’s what I tried to do in mixing up short interviews focused on a single film to long ones that amount to a career overview.

Interviewers seem to bring a certain “personality” to their coverage. Have you seen this in any particular Bright Lights writers featured in your collection?

Yes. The Hitchcock/Truffaut book set the standard here, where the personality of the interviewer really brought out the interviewee. On a more modest scale, I think some of that happens in the Action! book. Bert Cardullo, for example, starts his interviews after a deep immersion in a filmmaker’s work, so the discussion is pretty authoritative, with Bert at times challenging subjects like Robert Bresson. Others, like Peter Rinaldi talking to Caveh Zahedi or Damon Smith chatting with Melvin and Mario van Peebles, bring a playful sensibility to the interview. Still others bring a big-picture approach to the chat based on their own world view. I’m thinking, for example, about Andrew Grossman’s interview of radical filmmaker and artist Otto Muehl, who served time in jail for breaching social conventions and breaking the law.

Do you prefer the q and a format over an article that integrates quotes from an interview subject?

We’ve published both, and both have their points. Sometimes you just want the direct quotes without the personality of the interviewer coming in. On the other hand, a talented writer can offer more context, and thus more potential insights, in a narrative interview. Sometimes it’s just fun to see where an interview takes the reader. In the Fellini interview, for instance, Toni Maraini draws the director into amazing areas like Carlos Castenada and dreams that both inform the film work and are far outside it.

I see that Action! includes a number of retrospective interviews. How important would you say such interviews are, as opposed to the usual “newsworthy” coverage of current stars/filmmakers?

Given the unprecedented degree of access to films past and present, it wouldn’t make sense to stick to contemporary stars or directors exclusively. The vaults are continually spilling open with their goodies. Examples: cable channels like Turner Classic Movies,, Fox Movie Channel. Also the Warner Archive, which is selling rare titles dating back to the ‘20s that have never been on DVD. Apparently it’s quite a success, which tells me people are interested in culture period, irrespective of the era. Leaving out older films would be like studying art without checking out Vermeer or Picasso.

Would you say the online film publications must cover current releases in order to survive? Would a new classics-only publication face a quick death?

I’d be leery of starting any kind of “classics-only” publication in today’s climate, though I do read one: Classic Images. I’d say covering contemporary releases makes sense not just for survival, but also because you want to know what is happening film-wise right now. I just saw 2012, which was godawful on many levels but also had a raging subtext of deep anxiety and frustration with the status quo (adios, White House!). Movies reflect what is happening in our culture in a million ways, and being aware of what they are currently focusing on – even if you can’t stand them – seems important in understanding where we are right now as a society.

(Photo by Bob Moricz)

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