The Scribblin’ Samurai

Dana Stevens answers reader questions during a Reddit AMA.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, 2001
Ladies and gentlemen, Dana Stevens. (OK, OK, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh.)

Photo silhouette by Slate. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.

Slate movie critic Culture Gabfest co-host Dana Stevens took to Reddit to answer reader questions and chat with scores of fanboys on Wednesday. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Trustrobots: We’re four (some would argue five) years into a new decade—what would you say is the best movie that’s been released so far?

Dana Stevens: Oh wow, best movie released since 2010? I’m so not a list-maker, and choosing just one is sort of the ultimate list. But off the top of my head, I’m going to go with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.


NerdFromDenmark: Pancakes or waffles?

Dana Stevens: French toast. Though I do love a good thin Swedish-style pancake too.


Weltretter: The Adam Kempenaar scenario: Aliens land and will erase every single copy of every film ever made—except one. And you get to choose which one survives. What’s your pick?

Dana Stevens: So this would need to be a movie that contains strong enough cinematic DNA to allow a future alternate movie history to spring from its preservation—I think for the sake of humanity, you have to pick Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, or Buster Keaton’s The General. Preferably a mutant clone movie incorporating elements of all three.


JessePinkman: You have a doctorate in comparative literature from Berkeley and you could have probably pursued a tenure-track professorship, but instead you became a film critic. What happened with academia?

Dana Stevens: Oh boy. Well. It wasn’t me that rejected academia but academia that rejected me: I finished my Ph.D., went out on the job market for several years running, and never got offered a university job. At the time I thought this was a sign of the injustice of the hiring system in the humanities (which is, in fact, screwed six ways from Sunday), but looking back I am sure there were candidates for those jobs who felt more sure about their profession.

When my writing started taking off (i.e., going from blogging 1x/week at the High Sign to actually gettin’ paid, initially as a TV critic at Slate), I wasn’t too sad to leave academia behind, though I miss some things about it. There are a few critics who have had a similar trajectory, educationwise: A.O. Scott and Virginia Heffernan both either have or went a long way toward getting lit Ph.D.s. I know I wouldn’t be the writer and thinker I am if I hadn’t had those years at Berkeley.


Revere1: If you could create one new Oscar category, what would it be?

Dana Stevens: Maybe there should be an ensemble cast award? Or a second-best-score category that would include some use of pre-existing music as well as new? A lot of the best scores don’t get considered now because of those rules.


Weltretter: Who should play you in the Dana Stevens biopic, and what would it be called?

Dana Stevens: Someone once told me Naomi Watts should play me in a movie, and I ascended to heaven on wings of angels. I think I am more of a … I don’t know … Jennifer Jason Leigh? But 20 percent less crazy? I don’t have a title either. How about The Scribblin Samurai?


Im_the_Zeppo: Do you have any reviews you look back on where your opinion has wildly changed for the better or worse?

If you could cast a new Siskel & Ebert-type review show, which two critics would you like to see go back and forth (not counting yourself)?

Dana Stevens: Changed for better or worse: I need to resee Young Adult. In our Spoiler Special podcast on it, Dan Kois pretty much persuaded me I saw it wrong. But I’m not sure at what point I will care enough to address that issue. As for a new Siskel and Ebert, I actually thought A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips were just getting their sea legs when they were taken off the air. Do I really not get to cast myself, even in fantasy? I would love to do a show like that with Stephanie Zacharek. We are friends (IRL!!!) but have very different movie taste, and I think we would have a fun rapport. Networks, you know where to find us.


Frdelrosario: Do you take notes in the dark? Favorite films and folks from the Golden Age? Which Pixar films missed?

Dana Stevens: Notes in the Dark! That’s the title for my biopic. Yes, I do scribble stuff in the dark, though I rarely look at it later and would probably not be able to read it if I did.

Golden Age—I don’t know what we’re saying that is, but some of my favorite classic filmmakers are Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Preston Sturges, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Billy Wilder—the usual suspects, I guess.

I think I’ve seen every Pixar movie except A Bug’s Life, which I never got around to because nobody seems to love it.


Cowboyoctopus: Hi, Dana! I just want to let you know you are one of my journalistic lady-crushes. (I find you quite charming.) What’s an upcoming film you can’t wait to see? Also—what’s been your biggest challenge as a female journalist and movie critic?

Dana Stevens: 1) I am charmed and yet discomfited by that fact!

2) I can’t wait to see PTA’s Inherent Vice and David Fincher’s Gone Girl.

3) I’m doing a panel on women in film criticism this Saturday at NYU and wondering how to answer that very question. The truth off the top of my head is that I have not found it to be an impediment, and there’s obviously a long tradition of women being well-represented in film criticism as compared with other careers (for example, filmmaking). I do find being a parent and a film critic to be tough sometimes—a lot of tight deadlines, a lot of nights away from home. But I don’t see how that would be different for a male critic if he was really pitching in as a parent, which most fathers I know are.


eisenhower777: Dante Stephens, how do you feel about aggregate review sites (Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes)? Do you think they help or hurt film criticism?

Dana Stevens: I don’t see how they would hurt—they just organize data. I use them a lot just to find out stats about a new movie, or remind myself how something went over in the past. Obviously if you start choosing your movie based solely on Tomatometer averages, you’re overly in thrall to data, but it’s a place to go find work by critics you might be interested to read. Overall I am pro-Tomato.


JorgeCS: Does Stephen Metcalf smell of lavender and cedar wood as I imagine he does?

Dana Stevens: Next time I see him, I’ll just walk up, bury my nose deep in his preppy flannel shirt collar, and sniff. No, I will definitely not be doing that. But I would not be surprised if he was the single most fragrant member of the Gabfest.


Ldpincincinnati: First, you’re completely correct about flip-flops. Your position on the subject in unassailable. Now, movies: What’s your view on why Inside Llewyn Davis got no Academy Awards love? I’ve seen all the nominees except 12 Years a Slave, and so not having seen the winner, I can’t say ILD should have won, but I can say with confidence that it should have been nominated.

Dana Stevens: Thanks on flip-flops. Solidarity forever.

As for Llewyn Davis, that is clearly not Oscar material—way too small, too subtle, too good. But there’s a line from Hamlet that comes to mind whenever people talk about awards in terms of what “deserved” to win: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ’scape whipping?”


Frajer: Who’s your most underrated director/film?

Dana Stevens: Mind a blank, mind a blank … well, of people currently working, I think Todd Haynes is an amazing director who people don’t talk about/revisit enough. Nicole Holofcener gets praise from critics, but not the size audience she deserves. And among classic filmmakers, Max Ophüls is every bit as original and brilliant as, say, Orson Welles, but because he has a small filmography and worked in “women’s” genres, he doesn’t get remembered as often.


Twarnercool: What’s your favorite “odd” movie?

Dana Stevens: I have a longtime soft spot for The Abominable Dr. Phibes.


mr_everything: Which is your favorite Pessoan heteronym?

Dana Stevens: Great question. Probably the one whose poetry I know and love the best is either Álvaro de Campos, in his Whitman mode, or Fernando Pessoa “himself.” But the book that first made me fall for Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, is by the semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares.


ZombieLincoln666: Do you have any favorite music videos?

Dana_Stevens: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”? Or that Spike Jonze-directed one where Björk dances with the giant cat?


wogunsalute: What book would you like to see adapted to the big screen? Personally I’d like a Satanic Verses film, though obviously that wouldn’t happen, so second choice might be The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.

Dana_Stevens: Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with Mackenzie Crook as Bartleby. Please, please, some director worthy of Melville make this happen!


colfaxschuyler: How does it feel like to be Internet-famous?

Dana_Stevens: I suspect you are making fun of me with that question, but I will simply throw back my head with an Errol Flynn laugh and reply: Magnificent!