Interview with Nadia: Film Critic Carlos Valladares discusses A24, 1930s Hollywood, and the plight of Marvel

Carlos Valladares is a writer and critic from South Central Los Angeles, California. He studied film at Stanford University and began his PhD in History of Art and Film & Media Studies at Yale University in fall 2019. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, n+1, Film Comment and the Criterion Collection. He hopes to make his debut feature in the next couple years, based on stories by Henry James, Clarice Lispector and his own childhood.

I interviewed Valladares about how Stanford nurtured his passion for film and his insights on criticism and the film industry. A revised, abridged version of this interview was originally published in The Stanford Daily.

NADIA JO [NJ]: What activities and opportunities at Stanford influenced your growth as a scholar, critic, and consumer of art?

CARLOS VALLADARES [CV]: The first one was the access that students have to Green Library – especially the Media & Microtext Center, which was like my church. During my four years at Stanford, I would go there and watch any random movie, from the most popular ones like “Blade Runner 2049” to the most obscure, like a Yasuzo Masumura film from the 1960s. That was a lot of my education, honestly: watching films that my professors had recommended, or something one of my friends had told me about. 

The second thing was the Stanford Theatre. It’s this great movie house – one of the few bright spots of University Avenue in Palo Alto – and one of the now rarer and rarer movie theaters that shows classic films in the format they were made in and intended to be seen: 35 mm film. They will do an Alfred Hitchcock Spring, or a program of Val Lewton horror films, or screwball comedies of the 30s. It’s so cheap, literally $6 each night for a double feature. It’s my favorite cinema in the world by far. The first double bill I saw there was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and then Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings.” That blew my mind, seeing it from the balcony by myself: a total aesthetic revelation.

NJ: When did you start to become interested in film? 

CV: What got me started was going to the library when I was in seventh or eighth grade. I would see DVDs at the library, and if they had a little “C” on the edge, I would watch it because that meant it was part of the Criterion Collection, which is an important series of classic and contemporary films. So I saw a bunch of arthouse films as this precocious youngster: “Summertime” by David Lean next to “The Shop on Main Street” next to “Yojimbo.” I remember watching “The Godfather” when I was like 12 and thinking for the first time, “Oh, movies can be art.” It was an interest of mine, but it wasn’t as big as books or music. I think my cinephilia definitely flourished when I was at Stanford. Criterion was also a big gateway for me. Now I occasionally write for them, so it’s coming full circle. 

“Non-English films allow you to stop thinking that a film is supposed to conform to your own ideal vision of reality.”

NJ: Film aficionados love old black & white movies, non-English-language movies, and DVDs. Most Americans would raise an eyebrow at these things. How do you feel knowing that you are part of a unique and maybe even old-fashioned bunch? 

CV: When people read stuff in translation, like Anton Chekhov or Kōbō Abe, they’re reading it in their mother language. So you’re [usually] reading it in English. It’s a subtle effect, but I feel like in that case your unconscious goal is to match whatever the author’s experience is – who isn’t from the US – to your experience as a US, English-speaking citizen. The reason I love film so much, probably more than any of the other arts, is because film doesn’t allow you to do that. You’re always aware that these actors are speaking a completely different language than you. Non-English films allow you to stop thinking that a film is supposed to conform to your own ideal vision of reality.

It’s so dumb how some people will literally never see anything before 1990. To me, that’s such a crass way of looking at history and arts and film. A pop culture and sports critic named Shea Serrano wrote this awful book called “Movies (and Other Things).” This guy is proud of the fact that he doesn’t seen anything before 1990; all of his examples were like potboilers, trash youth movies like the John Hughes cycle, or “Entertaining” blockbusters, with a capital E: “The Matrix,” “Fight Club”— but exclusively stuff like that. It’s more snobbish than what people think snobbism is, it’s the true elitism, and it’s very particular to the US. I was reading this and thinking, “What is the point of even introducing a modern audience to bullshit they already know about? Catering to a static knowledge, and not asking them to question what’s available and not available to watch?” It breeds a morbid solipsism and narcissism about what art can be if you’re conforming to an imagined base popular taste.

As a result of that, I dig super deep into movies of any age. No one dismisses old books or talks about them as if they’re old books: “Moby Dick” is “Moby Dick.” “Anna Karenina” is “Anna Karenina.” That’s respectable, and people are more willing to let books exist in a “dated” sphere (another tiresome criticism) because they’re not seeing literal, physical images. Books, because they’re text and a web of abstract symbols, can get away from this literalism that plagues the imagination around movies. Yet, for some reason, people can’t get over “old timey talk” of 30s Hollywood melodramas. Or they don’t like silent movies because they’re “outdated.” But I guarantee you: If you watch a lot of silent movies, you realize just how much filmmakers today don’t do anything with dialogue. If more young directors, especially from the US, watched more silent films and not be holier-than-thou about them, we’d have better movies. Like Gloria Swanson says in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” It’s not old-fashioned; it’s just made in a different era, but this changes nothing about the insights and emotions and revelations film can bring about. We’re still hung up on the same shit the first great directors were hung up on: love, power, oppressive capital, desire, death, fun, fear.

NJ: There are many types of movie lovers. The cinephiles look down on “film bros” who tend to like American movies that only go as far back as the 1970s. As someone who has explored the depths of the film world, how do you feel about the people who have a limited understanding of the world of cinema, whether it’s by choice or by ignorance?

CV: Two critics have really pushed me to think about film beyond the “film bro” mold of recent filmmakers, like David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. One of them, Jonathan Rosenbaum, has this list called his “1,000 Favorites.” It has films from all over the world; he’s one of the most well-watched people in the history of cinema, and his tastes bounced off on me. The other is Miriam Bale, who is a Rosenbaum acolyte as well, but she has tastes and opinions that veer very far off from the filmic mainstream.

There’s a snobbism that comes with some cinephilic circles because there’s a coded way of discussing films that can result in alienation for other people, but it just takes one film to act as your gateway into the whole world of cinema.

Fortunately, the face of cinema is changing so much. Viewing habits are becoming less US-centric, less straight and literal and more poetic, less white, male, cisgender. The sense of what the image can evoke is changing quite rapidly. At the same time, there’s this troubling ahistoricism that’s happening especially among viewers my age and below, where people want images from the past to conform to their own present notions of a “progressive” or “advanced” film. That’s where you get people who say, “I don’t watch films before 1980 because they were all made by straight, dead, white men.” This is a dangerous and uninteresting way of engaging with art—purely reactionary.

As someone who is Latino in the United States, I’m hyper-aware of all these things. I can find as much beauty and “identification” in a Vincente Minnelli melodrama – where everyone is white – as something that’s closer to home, like the LA Rebellion filmmakers for me, since I grew up in South Central [Los Angeles]. And the latter artists were thinking structurally, in terms of politics and aesthetics and history and memory in union, and not just a cosmetic shift. It just has to do with a shifting perspective. Juggling these conversations is important for the work that I want to do.

NJ: Like you mentioned, I think it’s funny that contemporary people say that all old movies are prejudiced. Right now, the revolution means adding more diversity in Hollywood. What I’ve learned from diving into arthouse films is that the non-mainstream pioneers were concerned with showing more complex experiences on film – much earlier than most people realize. But the average Joe doesn’t know that. 

CV: Yes, people only care about what Hollywood is doing right now, which is so decrepit, so tied to the kind of failing capitalism crumbling before our very eyes during COVID-19. 

“Franchise film producers are trying to shovel money into films that people are quickly losing the willpower and the interest to see.”

NJ: In the last few years, Martin Scorsese has been increasingly speaking out against Marvel and franchise movies, stirring up debates in the movie world. He wrote in the New York Times, “There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare.” What do you think about Scorsese’s critique and the state of the movie industry today? 

CV: I think he’s completely right. People misunderstood his entire point – they perceived him as elitist. He wasn’t knocking people for going to Marvel movies. He was simply saying that franchise film producers are trying to shovel money into films that people are quickly losing the willpower and the interest to see. Superhero movies are Hollywood trying to tell us what to desire and what to think. That’s literally the only choice that they’ve given us.

Martin Scorsese was thinking historically, in a more open-ended and populist kind of way. He’s thinking for the artists; he’s thinking for somebody like you or I, who wants to make something and say it in a personal, humanistic way. Marvel films are not humanistic. They’re ugly to look at. They’re a complete waste of money, which is like the shining beacon of late capitalism today. [Dissenters] called Scorsese stupid things like “an old man who’s out of touch,” ignoring how making a movie like “The Irishman” at his age is the work of a young-at-heart miracle-worker. I trust Scorsese over the screaming crowds on Twitter. I trust the guy who put his entire life into the soul of what cinema can be over the faceless Disney overlords.

I think the movie industry is in a profound state of crisis, especially with the takeover of streaming. There’s some places like Plan B or Array or A24 that are trying to present interesting original films, like “Uncut Gems” or “Lady Bird” or “If Beale Street Could Talk” or the upcoming “Blonde” with Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. I appreciate the existence of companies like that. But these are pockets.

NJ: I’m glad that [Scorsese] spoke up because he is an auteur who has luckily found success with things that the average person knows, like “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas.” I agreed with his perspective as well. He talked about how movie producers are minimizing risk by going with the tried-and-tested formulas, the same superhero characters. There’s no funding for other independent filmmakers.

CV: Yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s mainstream. This is also how the French New Wave arose, which had such a lasting impact on the world of filmmaking. Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were reacting against the French film industry for what it had become, which was a bloated parody of itself. That’s what Scorsese did. People got angry at Truffaut because that’s just the nature of revolutions, and that’s what happens to artists who are honest and who have vision and drive.

NJ: Do you think cinephiles should just congregate with people who already know the “true world” of cinema? Or do you have the energy to evangelize? 

CV: That’s something that I struggle with every day, as someone who can easily wander within those hermetic cinephile groups. I much prefer to go to movies with friends who don’t make it their job, so that I can get their unvarnished and unjaded reaction to things. Cinephiles that I’ve met or read about on social media tend to only think about film, not art or literature or life beyond the screen. When you reach out to the so-called “masses,” that’s much more gratifying for me. That’s why I write criticism, and try to write it in a way that’s engaging to people who may have never seen the movie or won’t ever see the movie. And why I guess I’m bored of just writing criticism and want to make movies proper.

NJ: Can you please talk about three to four movies that are most meaningful to you? 

CV: Anything by Jacques Demy is instantly one of the greatest works of art of all time. For one, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is such an eternal, beautiful, devastating, important work. 

For the US, I’ll say “Personal Problems.” It’s a film with scenes from the life of this weary nurse who works in Harlem. [The screenwriter] Ishmael Reed described it as an experimental Black soap opera. It’s a completely inimitable work. It’s shot in this weird video-like format that makes it look like a home movie, very relaxed and unassuming. But that enhances the tenderness, quietness, the beauty and the washed-out devastation.

I will also hitch my wagon on “Some Came Running” by Vincente Minnelli, anything by Robert Bresson, Glauber Rocha, Chantal Akerman, Blake Edwards, Jacques Tati, and Ernie Kovacs’ TV shows. When I want to make movies, I want them to be like Richard Lester’s “Petulia” or Alain Resnais’ “Muriel.” There’s a lot of splintered editing that perfectly nails what it is to remember things, and I’m shocked no one really takes up their examples today. If you’re starting out you either just hang the camera back super far and make it cheap arthouse or shake it super sloppy and pretend you’re Cassavetes. No one can be.

NJ: What advice would you give to students at Stanford who want to watch and study movies in a more meaningful way?

CV: Join Letterboxd! I found it a great site to feed my cinephilia. People should also realize that streaming doesn’t have everything, but the Criterion Channel, MUBI and Amazon Prime have a wide selection for people to watch. Anyone can join the world of movies at any age. I just happened to start extremely early. Go to the Stanford Theatre and go to the Green Library. Bring friends! There were so many days when the library was empty and I would be like, “This is such a rich resource! What are people doing? Eating waffle fries at TAP?” Fountain hopping will always be there, but cinema can’t wait. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Carlos’s Letterboxd

Nadia’s Letterboxd

1 Comment

  1. This is a great interview Nadia, had a delightful time reading it. Definitely a lot of substance here and inspired a lot of reflection on my part.

    I do agree with the general sentiment of Scorsese’s very eloquent article as well as Valladares’ corresponding critiques. In particular, I’d also say that Marvel films or franchise films, in general, are encroaching into an increasingly limited screen/ticket count. Though there have been more cineplexes in the recent century, and certainly box office records are broken almost every year, if one were to look at the ticket sales numbers there’s actually been a stagnation in cinema-going since the 80s (there’s one curious peak at around 2002 which can probably be attributed to LOTR). The developing monopoly of the big-eared mouse doesn’t help either, what with the eliminated competitions. We can go on forever regarding the perilous direction that modern cinema seems to be taking, with factors including a talent drain from tv, the general deterioration of the cinema-going experience and environment, covid, etc. so I’ll refrain from doing so.

    Many have theorized the possible revival of single-screen cinema palaces in lieu of the chain cinemas which had been overly developed in the recent decade. Perhaps in the future cinema-going will become a much more niche and consequently expensive experience, much like the theatre or the opera nowadays. I recently learned of an interesting concept named ‘the lifespan of culture’, which is a fictional theory from the anime Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, that states the lifespan of a piece of popular culture is about fifty years, and what survives past then may no longer be an art form for the masses. Perhaps big-screen film viewing is following a similar trajectory.

    In any case, I will argue with a few statements from the interview. A notable one being ‘Marvel films are not humanistic. They’re ugly to look at. They’re a complete waste of money, which is like the shining beacon of late capitalism today’. Perhaps it is the phrasing at fault here, but I would say that very few films are without value and can be dismissed outright. Marvel films, and superhero movies in general I would say, are still a developing sub-genre, and only relatively recently have we been seeing some fruition. Black Panther, Logan, and most recently Shang Chi have all used subtexts to tell deeply personal and humanistic stories in the overarching construct of superheroes, and I certainly look forward to what Chloe Zhao may bring to ‘Eternals’. I won’t seek to give an exhaustive critique of these films’ individual merits as many critics have already done far better jobs than I could. Perhaps Valladares is referring less to the Marvel films themselves but the overwhelming manner in which they have been marketed and produced, forcing audiences to watch a movie in cinema simply because of the ‘superhero’ tag and less to enjoy a ‘good’ film. ‘Joker’ being a prime example in my mind, what was only a passable character study with convoluted, confused, and conflicting social messaging earn explosive popularity due to its name.

    Formulaic filmmaking and the disturbingly violating gazes of the studio producers have been at the heart of popular films long before the Marvel machine took its stage. My recent reflection is that I seem to gravitate more and more towards anime, it being a medium that barely makes any money itself, and exists almost solely to promote its source material (or merchandising, in unfortunate cases), therefore granting a much larger voice to individual creators. The anime industry itself certainly has its fair share of the dark side, but I digress.

    All in all, I for one am looking forward to seeing what Marvel films, having reached what I believe is a plateau in its formulaic success, will do in the future. What I’m not looking forward to is Disney crushing its competitions, opening up its own cineplexes, charging exuberant ticket prices, and shoving their products down my throat. The problem of Marvel films is certainly connected to the Disney/streaming/cinema crisis, but it should not be discussed exclusively and bear the sole brunt of cinema lovers’ fury. As to whether Marvel films are ‘cinema’ or ‘worldwide audiovisual entertainment’, only time will tell. I only wish that time isn’t one where ‘worldwide audio-visual entertainment’ (Disney^tm) becomes our only choice.

    Oh and yes Les parapluies de Cherbourg is pretty much perfect.

    Hope you’re doing well,
    Henry Pan

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s