'Younger than that now?' Susan Gerhard says she lost her cynicism working on what she calls a 'lift-all-boats' film publication.

Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

Johnny Ray Huston November 2, 2011

Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

Presented with the opportunity to write about Susan Gerhard, who I worked with for 10 years at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, I had to resist the urge to troll down memory lane and dredge up anecdotes about notorious temper tantrums (including mine) and one-of-a-kind characters we've experienced and survived, however entertaining such a venture might have been. Instead, I thought it would be best to ask her about the role of the editor within film writing, at a precise moment when editors, let alone intelligent ones, are becoming an endangered species. Her answers are below.

[Editor’s note: How awkward is this? I assigned and edited this story, an interview with me by my colleague Johnny Ray Huston, because the San Francisco Film Society, as a generous parting gift, offered me an Essential SF Award shortly after realizing the organization could no longer continue funding the publication. I will dearly miss working on SF360.org, and I appreciate all the readers and writers who took part in it with me over these past six years. Johnny's unexpurgated introduction to this Q&A, with kind words from Sam Green, is posted far bottom, in Comments.]

Johnny Ray Huston: As a writer and editor, you've had close ties to the San Francisco film community for over two decades now. How would you say things have changed during that time? How have your own interests and passions changed?

Susan Gerhard: When I first started writing about indie and arthouse film in the early ’90s, the films came from elsewhere: Richard Linklater’s Austin, Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, and Allison Anders’ Echo Park. There wasn’t the sense that we had an industry in the San Francisco Bay Area worth paying attention to outside of political documentaries (though valuable) and the scattering of superstar L.A. exiles (George Lucas, etc.) hiring a lucky few. We were, to my mind at least, an audience town—one of the hotspots for making/breaking indie films like Swoon or Poison, a great place for curators and collectors and people who liked to smoke outside the cinema. We had sensibilities and sophistication, but little output of our own.

Now, of course, we are drowning in locally built media products, from YouTube to Facebook. We appear to have a growing population not just of political doc makers and avant-garde experimenters, but also animators, tech innovators, and even a seeming growing middle class of independent, dramatic filmmakers making money in corporate projects to fund their indie dreams the way they do in L.A. and New York. The connection between the Industry and the indie is interesting to me.

When I first started writing about film, the times were passive and cynical in my mind, and these times—though economically severe—are more enthusiastic and active, and, I hope, revolutionary. Er, I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now...?

Huston: What about the SF360.org experience has been most rewarding to you personally? What do you think SF360.org has done for the SF film community and broader world of film?

Gerhard: The most rewarding aspect of SF360.org has been overcoming cynicism; much of it, to be honest, my own. When I first started this venture, I wasn’t quite sure there was enough film to cover in the Bay Area. It took me about 10 days to realize there was far too much. SF, Oakland, there’s a there there.

Beyond that first day of publishing—when I got a call from Graham [Leggat], saying, ‘You’ve made my dream come true'—the highlight of the SF360 work was building bridges between SF film niches: the watchers, the makers, highbrow, lowbrow, indie activist and establishment. Connections were made and actions resulted from the intersection of funders, writers, critics and filmmakers in a living, breathing publication. Sometimes, a story meant that a film got financed or distributed—though that wasn't necessarily the original intent.

Most satisfying, I think, was seeing work develop and emerge, e.g., reading Michael Fox’s In Production column cover a film in the making, like Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s Better This World, and six months later seeing that film finished, with a line around the block to see it when it played here.

Huston: While editors are still considered vital to the filmmaking process, editors in the realm of journalism and arts writing are having a tough time of it in terms of proving their value. What do you think is getting lost because of this?

Gerhard: I think the idea that editors are ‘gatekeepers’ is a sad one. Editors are the ones who actually open the gate and let readers in, because they help writers better express their thoughts. They bring arguments into logical alignment. They tame and mold language so that it communicates ideas. I’m not so worried about the world where Martin Scorsese becomes Martin Scorcese because no one can ever spell his name right. I’m worried about the world where we all stop reading because the writing we collectively publish is unbearable.

Huston: Can you tell me about some specific experiences working at SF360 that you're especially proud of, or ones that you especially enjoyed?

Gerhard: I really enjoyed the panels I moderated and Q&As I hosted both at the Apple store downtown and at the Sundance Kabuki during the San Francisco International during the half-decade of SF360.org. An early panel with Sam Green (then known for The Weather Undergound, now Utopia in Four Movements) and Jeff Zimbalist (then, Favela Rising, now, The Two Escobars)—it had a political theme—was fascinating to me; it was Jeff’s first feature doc and he was bursting at the seams; George Gund (senior) rolled in and watched from the back with attention. A few years later, interviewing Michel Gondry to SRO with a surprise drop-in from Mos Def and people lined up out the door was kind of surreal. The critics panel that went along with Gerald Peary’s documentary about our dying art form was lively—Dennis Harvey, Ruby Rich, Mary Pols, Jonathan Curiel, Peary and John Anderson—and proved that everyone’s not really a critic. These critics are, in their bones, critics, for better and worse; they are unique, stubborn and smart, and all presented such coherent arguments, witty stories. We did not come to blows, though that would have been great. We actually enjoyed ramen and beer together after.

The Sean Uyehara-curated stories by Mary Gaitskill (regarding Laurel Nakadate) and Bruce Sterling (for Marius Watz) were definite highlights, one tonally rich, the other slyly polemical—both still viewable on the site. (More to come on that front—the Warhol Foundation-funded Kinotek programs—from SFFS.)

And I'd be remiss if I didn't say how happy I was to work with all the writers, you included, and interns, but/and especially the very regular contributors Michael Fox and Dennis Harvey, who devoted a lot of time and effort to building SF360.org over six years. Not to mention B. Ruby Rich and Max Goldberg and, really, everyone else. I was pleased to see the publication grow from a Graham-indieWIRE collaboration to an SFFS-based magazine (designed by Method, built by Spider and organized by Michael Read at SFFS) for cinephiles and filmmakers in San Francisco and beyond. We were about to extend our reach, and the next chapter might just have been the best.... It may still be, in one form or another.

Huston: As a writer about film, what is your relationship to filmmakers like? I'm curious about this partly because I believe it's been multifaceted, and might surprise people who assume there's a strict divide between film critics or journalists and those who make movies.

Gerhard: I sometimes make movies, short ones, unfunded ones (with friends, The Sound of One Hand Clapping ~ !), so I’m a tiny bit filmmaker myself. But who isn’t these days? I do get to know local filmmakers, but once I know someone, I don’t write ‘as a critic’ on their work. I can continue only in profile, backstory, or ‘champion’ mode, full disclosure.

What I don’t enjoy are the staged encounters between filmmakers (or actors) on junket tours with press brought in to talk to them in hotel rooms. Worst experiences on that front? Interviewing two actresses from a Mike Leigh film. They wanted me to open a window (it wouldn't), freshen their drinks (with ____?), ask better questions (i.e., ones that weren't about Leigh). I couldn’t. I was trying to call for service for them. There ended up being tears. Another in the pantheon: Being greeted by Harmony Korine in a hotel room, where he did the interview from under covers. I took notes bedside, kept the tape rolling, begged the publicist to return to the room.

Alternately, my favorite way to get to know a filmmaker is offering the first-time interview at their first film festival. They are, at that stage, so engaged with their project, fresh and uninhibited.

Huston: As an editor, what's it like to work with a variety of writers? Do you find each relationship to be distinct, and is there a give and take in terms of learning or ideas?

Gerhard: Yes, definitely. I love being an editor, because I learn from the writers: Content, style, facts, perspective. I also love being an editor when I’m on the teaching end, though of course the professional writers I was lucky to work with at SF360.org didn’t need any remedial help. (Last weekend, I tutored a 17-year-old girl creating her personal statement for college applications at Mission High for 826 Valencia; that was the most fulfilling editing-as-advising work I’ve ever done.)

Each writer is—as you know—unique in their interpretation of the word ‘deadline,’ of the concept ‘word count,’ and in a million other ways. Some writers need encouragement, an ear to sound out ideas. Others just need to be assigned the right category of story. All need money.

Huston: What's it like to publish a piece you don't agree with, or does this almost never happen? I've always felt you are one of the, if not the, most judicious and scrupulous editors I've worked with. Are there certain things you have to keep in mind when editing a piece, in terms of having input while also making a piece the best it can be?

Gerhard: What I loved most about working at the San Francisco Bay Guardian back in the day (with you…) was publishing pieces I didn’t agree with. That was the great thing about the place, the ability to publish the most opinionated, balls-out writing. We occasionally suffered because of it. (We certainly made mistakes along the way). But readers can sense insincerity and dishonesty, false praise, a mile away. Even if I disagree with an idea, if the writer’s being brave and intelligent in presenting it, I generally enjoy helping it make its way into the world.

Huston: What would you like to see more of in the realm of film criticism and journalism, and what would you like to see less of?

Gerhard: Better individual thinking, original reporting and essay writing, less herding, repetition and aggregation.

Huston: What are you looking forward to doing in the future?

Gerhard: Being outdoors.