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So What Do You Do, Elvis Mitchell, Film Critic and Host of KCRW's "The Treatment"?

From Times film critic to radio show host to non-profit film curator

- November 20, 2012

Wondering how to stay relevant in the digital age? Look no further than Elvis Mitchell, a film critic who kept right on going after being let go from a major daily newspaper -- albeit not without a couple of major bumps.

Since departing The New York Times in 2005, Mitchell has continued to host KCRW's "The Treatment," his popular weekly syndicated public radio show. The program has been on the air since 1996 and allows him to do what he does best: chat in free form with mostly film but occasionally music, TV and literary personalities.

And after briefly (and fitfully) returning to the film criticism ranks in 2010 as co-host for Roger Ebert's reboot of At the Movies and as chief film critic of Movieline, Mitchell landed an even better gig: film curator for non-profit group Film Independent. In just two short years, Mitchell has put his indelible stamp on the organization's slate of events at the L.A. County Museum of Art while continuing to spotlight past and present films that he believes in.

Birthdate: December 6. ("My suit size is 42 regular and shoe size 11, if you're in the mood to shop.")
Position: Film curator for Film Independent, host-producer of KCRW's The Treatment
Hometown: Detroit, Mich.
Career: Successful stints as a film critic with Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Detroit Free Press, L.A. Weekly and The New York Times. In 1996, began hosting the KCRW radio show, The Treatment, which is currently syndicated to several dozen public radio stations around the country. Producer of the 2008 feature documentary The Black List and host of the Turner Classic Movies interview series Under the Influence. In 2011, named film curator for non-profit Film Independent where he orchestrates various co-sponsored activities at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Education: Wayne State University, B.A. English
Marital Status: Single
Favorite TV shows: "These days, I'm loving Key & Peele, Bob's Burgers and it wouldn't be a day without Rachel Maddow, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Also, a big fan of the Jimmy's -- Fallon and Kimmel -- and I try to squeeze in Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show. Maybe I should try to sleep."
Guilty pleasure: "I'm too shallow to be guilty about anything."
Media idol: "Idle what? Sidney Poitier, always."
Last book read: John Hodgman's That is All

Your very first guest on The Treatment was Charlie Rose. What were your objectives when you launched the program, and what do you think accounts for the show's longevity?
My goal, simply put, was to get a guest on the show every week. Someone who could be articulate about what it is that they do. I really look at it, still, as a week-to-week process. We've gone from scrambling for guests in the early days of the show, just because people didn't know it, to now where we get too much great stuff offered to us all the time.

Excepting Christmas, when we broadcast repeats, we do a new The Treatment for every week of the year. That puts a lot of pressure on, to find and produce content that people want to hear. It's mostly film stuff, but I also like to try and show how wide-ranging a pop culture world it is and that everything touches on everything else. Film, TV, books, music: all of these worlds of popular culture are interconnected.

"The workload for a film critic today is just so Herculean."

Are you friends with a lot of the people you interview on The Treatment? I was struck, for example, during a recent episode with Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader by how much fun you seemed to be having.
I actually met Bill Hader at a screening, and he walked over to me and told me he was a fan of a show that I did on Turner Classic Movies a few years ago. We started talking and then it was just a matter of our respective schedules. I like him a lot and just knew he would be a great person to have on. It turned out to be a really fun show. A lot of it, though, is I kind of like to have new people on the show who I don't know and learn about them too.

What are a couple of surprising moments from the earliest days of The Treatment?
To be honest with you, I was kind of surprised that [April 1996 guest] Anthony Hopkins showed up for this new show that nobody had heard of.

I also remember Ben Kingsley came. It was a thrill to have him then, and I had made a pumpkin cheesecake that I brought to KCRW. He asked if he could have some, and, of course, I replied, 'Oh please, help yourself.' So he was sitting, eating cheesecake while we were doing the interview, and I thought, if I ever write my autobiography, it's going to be called Ben Kingsley Ate My Cheesecake.

He's somebody that I've gotten to know through the show. It's really great when we get repeat guests. We get to ask them different questions and they're really game. Someone like Kingsley really loves to talk about anything and has had such an interesting, erudite career. We talked about him being the first artist signed to Apple Records and how he changed his breathing for Sexy Beast. I said, 'That guy seems to be basically sputtering, almost oxygen-deprived,' and Kingsley said, 'Yeah, I changed the way I breathed. I wanted that guy to always be on the edge of anger; his brain has to be starved almost of oxygen.'

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief of Rotten Tomatoes?

Do you ever go long with The Treatment and, if so, what do you do with the unused audio?
We generally tape 32 minutes of conversation for our 28-minute programs so, no, it's rare that we go way over. However, it does sometimes happen. For example, my recent interview with Louis C.K. wound up going about an hour and there's a ton of great stuff there that we weren't able to use. At some point, if we do wind up getting a lot of shows where there is extra, worthwhile material that we can't use, we may have to figure out a way to post an extended version.

Would you ever consider, if the opportunity arose, returning to the ranks of a daily newspaper film critic?
[Laughs] The workload for a film critic today is just so Herculean. They're writing reviews, they're blogging and they're doing extra things for the Web. And, with movies that are based on books, you want to at least give the book a thumb-through and prepare. Add in film festivals and I'm not sure how people in the profession can keep up with it today. It's just shattering now, the workload.

There's so much stuff out there now, you can almost narrow-cast the ones that have the same taste and are directly in sync with your own likes. And that's a great thing. On the other hand, you can also be so specific in what you look for on the Internet that you can miss someone who might be able to introduce you to work that you don't know about. The more diverse voices there are, the better off we are.

"As a kind of superficial forum and endeavor, showbiz journalism is even more shallow than I thought it would be."

Your October Interview magazine conversation with Joaquin Phoenix got a large amount of media pick-up thanks to his comments that film awards season is "total bullsh*t and the worst-tasting carrot." What was your take and experience of the feedback you got after this interview?
I was astonished that this got so much reaction. There is a pretty lengthy part of the conversation that is about race, which I thought was as worthy if not more so as to what he was saying about awards season. That he walked away from a movie because he wasn't happy with the way it was being handled, and he thought there was this inertia that plays on this really antiquated attitude towards people of color in the movies.

And, so far as I can see, almost nobody picked that up. I thought that would have been the thing that had people really jumping. It kind of makes me think that as a kind of superficial forum and endeavor, showbiz journalism is even more shallow than I thought it would be. Because that was an incredible thing to say: that he not only walked away from the movie in terms of the producers and screenwriter on what was lacking in the script, but he also went on to talk about race in other parts of the society and asked pointed questions about it. I somehow thought that would get some coverage.

How do you and Jason Reitman work together on the "Live Read" LACMA series?
We select the scripts together. For example, I chose four of the six scripts for the 2011-12 run. But, as far as announcing each installment to the public and revealing the actors that are taking part, that's all up to Jason. This is his baby. He puts them together, does all the casting and publicizes them the way he wants to. LACMA and I give him full leeway.

You're showcasing Beasts of the Southern Wild on November 29 at LACMA and doing a Q&A with the director and cast. Where do you personally rank the film?
It's great to see an epic made with the limited resources of independent film. Indie films are usually intimate kinds of affairs. So, to see something on that scale, with that kind of voice and a whole new group of actors, literally new to performing. And that little girl -- at this point, I think she may win through the Oscars... To see somebody that young with that kind of presence who can hold a movie basically with almost no dialogue is incredibly exciting, in something that changes the literal complexion of movies.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief of Rotten Tomatoes?

Richard Horgan is co-editor of FishbowlLA.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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