Q and A with Film Historian Michael Sragow

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Michael Sragow
Film Historian Michael Sragow

Tell us about the goals of the new Moviegoer series at the Library of America.

Most film lovers are also book lovers, and vice versa. The Moviegoer aims to satisfy their dual appetites.

Every two weeks, in this column, a passionate writer on film champions a movie that unites the best of cinema and literature: an inspired adaptation of a novel, short novel, short story, or piece of nonfiction that has earned a spot in The Library of America. We aim for compact and informative essays that will convey the impact and genius of each film and its original material.

At the very least, I hope to provide readers with solid recommendations for movie watching. The highest aspiration for this feature is to catalyze a revitalizing spirit for classic films and books.

Why did you pick the Last of the Mohicans for the first column?

For one thing, I love the film. But it also felt appropriate to choose a movie based on a novel that helped establish the idea of a truly American literature.

I also wanted to signal that this feature wouldn’t merely include “official” movie classics already written up in textbooks (though we’ll be doing fresh takes on some of those) or adaptations that are slavishly faithful to the text. Mann’s movie is smart and irreverent as well as exciting. It will compel viewers who’ve never read Cooper to take the plunge and will inspire Cooper fans to re-assess their stance toward the original material.

You call the film a “precursor” to The Revenant. In what way?

The PR for The Revenant has been firing up stories of difficult locations, exhausted crew members, and actors pushed to breaking point. Twenty-four years ago, Michael Mann's production generated similar publicity—but the result is an enthralling movie with a tidal wave of epic feeling, not merely an aestheticized endurance contest (which is what I think The Revenant turns into). Amazingly, the AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) nominated Last of the Mohicans for Best Sound only. It won. So at least its Oscar percentage is 100% (so is its entertainment value).

Your opening paragraph suggests a number of criticism of current movies both in their choice of heroes and their reliance on computer graphics. Did you also mean to suggest something about the lack of interest on the part of contemporary filmmakers in adapting classic books to the screen?

I didn’t necessarily mean to suggest that more films need to be made from classic books, simply that contemporary movies should include stronger stories with complex flesh-and-blood characters.

But an amazing amount of work by our best or most vital authors is untapped. Not every Saul Bellow novel is cinematic, but what about Henderson the Rain King? Isn’t it time for someone to take another whack at Updike’s Rabbit books? Couldn’t a smart action director fashion a new kind of Western out of Frank Norris’s The Octopus? And what about all the novels that were truncated and sanitized for the screen in past eras but could now be done all-out, like Jack London’s Martin Eden?

You weren’t troubled by the changes made by the director in adapting the film. Why?

I would have been troubled if the changes were stupid or halfhearted, but they were intelligent and integral to a new and complete vision of the story.  It was fascinating to talk to the director about how much he’d altered from the novel, because if you step back just a step or two, you see how utterly reliant the film still is on Cooper’s knack for creating vivid set pieces and his genius for mythmaking.

You referenced a number of painters in your essay.  In your experience, do filmmakers spend time looking at paintings?

Not just paintings but photographs and artifacts of all kinds. John Huston, a painter himself, tried to make his version of The Red Badge of Courage (a movie I hope we cover soon) look like a Matthew Brady photograph.

I recently interviewed the brilliant production designer of The Revenant, Jack Fisk, who put the need to look for artistic sources outside of film quite lucidly:

“I try to research films extensively, and I try to do it from material written before the time of the film, and to look at pictures or paintings that are right for that period. I try not to reference motion pictures. For me, that’s like dubbing a videotape—every generation down it becomes less clear.”

How much do you think N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations influenced the look of the film?

A great deal—generally, I think Mann was inspired by their color, sweep, and brio, but also specifically, in the very look of the canoes, for example, and in the drama and mystery of the forests.

You talk about the director liberating “Cooper from himself”. What did you mean?

If you read the book fresh, without preconceptions, you’re apt to be astonished by how sympathetic Cooper is to his Native American characters, not just for their wilderness and survival skills, but also for the dignified interplay among different generations within tribes, and for their pursuit of justice, even if it can be a very rough justice.

Yet Cooper is also condescending to them, both as individuals and as members of an indigenous people destined to lose their land to white men. He looks down on the greed and arrogance of Europeans, but he also shares much of their hierarchical worldview. Mann, by ridding Cooper’s characterizations of anything patronizing or reductive, enables us to see more clearly how much respect and affection the author has for Uncas, Chingachgook, and others.

How did you get into the profession of film criticism?

I initially hoped to become a moviemaker. But even before I considered making movie criticism my profession, I was always writing about movies, whether for the high school newspaper or the community weekly.

When I was at NYU film school as a freshman, I wrote a long essay on my favorite movie, The Wild Bunch, and sold it to a small film magazine. I discovered how gratifying it is to wrestle with your most intimate reactions to a movie and to articulate your most wide-ranging perceptions. I transferred to Harvard and studied history and literature and became the critic for the daily newspaper, The Crimson.  

What can we expect from you and other authors in the way of future columns for The Moviegoer?

We have some wonderful writers and subjects lined up (see below).

Our readers should expect to learn how each work has changed from page (and stage) to screen and how the film has been regarded, in recent years and at its initial release. They might find quotations from filmmakers and authors, and fresh comments from directors, writers, and other artists involved in or influenced by these films, or from biographers, editors, and scholars who are experts on the authors.

But each essay will primarily rest on the engagement and authority of the essayist. Upcoming authors and titles: 

2/10 • Carrie Rickey on The Age of Innocence
2/24 • Michael Sragow on The Maltese Falcon
3/9   • Terrence Rafferty on The Innocents
3/23 • Farran Smith Nehme on Little Women
4/6   • Michael Sragow on Billy Budd
4/20 • Harold Schechter on True Crime in American cinema
5/4   • David Denby on The Heiress

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