By Kevin Redding
If the movie really hypnotizes me, the sensation follows out into real life, and the world seems more solid, more vibrant and beautiful. I find I blink less and feel like I move more smoothly and if only for a few minutes, life becomes more real. This sensation is why I go out to the movies. Not every movie does it to me, but when one does, it’s worth the times it doesn’t.
If there’s two things “Welcome to the Basement” host Craig Johnson has, it’s an unflappable passion for movies and, as we see above in an excerpt from his essay “Of Gods and Dogs,” a wonderful way of expressing that passion. Along with Blame Society’s Matt Sloan, he has created one of the most refreshing, insightful and joyous little shows on the entire Internet, one filled to the brim with love and genuine human fascination with watching, discussing, and dissecting movies. “Welcome to the Basement,” with new episodes every other Friday wherein our two hosts watch a movie the other hasn’t seen before and then talk about it, is very much a friendlier, looser, and certainly more fanboy-driven “Siskel & Ebert.” Actually, much like “Siskel & Ebert,” but perhaps more overtly, it shines a much needed light on how important and beautiful the culture of moviegoing is. The two pals from Wisconsin certainly have great taste, and a lot to say about what makes a good film good—plus, in the case of many bad ones, how fun and imperative it is to voice how much you hated it and why.
Johnson—arguably the show’s most encyclopedic personality, with an arsenal of knowledge in movies, literature, history, theater, architecture, and more that’s downright humbling—has the ability to absorb and see things in a unique and inspiring fashion. He wears his heart on his sleeve in all the best ways, unable to hide how legitimately moved he is by certain performances, scenes, dialogue, etc. In other words, I’ve always wanted to chat movies with the guy, who on top of being the co-host of “Welcome to the Basement” is a longtime stage actor and improv comedian. So, I reached out to him on a whim and sure enough, he was nice enough to spend some time spieling over the phone. We talk film analysis, the Coen Brothers, Whiplash, travel, and more.
TB: Our site is built around the importance of absorbing all forms of entertainment, especially movies. Why do you think movies have such an effect on people?
CJ: I think part of the importance, and all of this goes back to storytelling, is that when you’re really wrapped up in a movie, you aren’t you anymore. It’s kind of similar to astral projection where all walls just go away. It doesn’t happen with every movie but when something is really clicking, it feels as though you are part of the movie, floating around.
TB: When did movies start making sense to you, as pieces of art worth analyzing?
CJ: It wasn’t a movie so much as a show I saw about movies. Something was on years ago and I just saw the ending of one episode. I must’ve been in junior high school at the time and it was a shot of a man and a woman who are in front of a distant mountain, their backs to the camera; there’s a brick wall that takes up half the screen and the professor on the show is saying how this image is the couple in their relationship. There’s a distant mountain and a brick wall and everything is impossible in this relationship. It wasn’t until five years ago that I saw that image again and found out it was the final shot of an Antonioni movie. And it was like finding out a dream I had as a kid was something that really happened. And just this man, this college professor, talking about that movie made me realize that movies aren’t just entertainment.
But before then, I want to see Tootsie when I was 8 or 9 years old. I saw it in theaters a couple times and I’m amazed, looking back, at how much of that movie I got, because it’s a really complex comedy. It has a lot of adult themes, deals with homosexuality, gender issues, and I was 8 or 9 years old and I understood all of it. And I’m not saying I was a brilliant kid, but that Sydney Pollack is a brilliant director to pull that off.
TB: Growing up, were you exposed to a lot of different movies? Was there a big presence of movies where you were raised?
CJ: Well, I didn’t really make a big effort when I was very young. I came from Janesville, Wisconsin, a town of 50,000 people. We had three screens in the entire town, and drive-ins in the summer so there weren’t that many choices, but with the ’80s came VCRs and cable so that just opened up everything to me. I was watching things I shouldn’t have been watching, just because I could. I don’t want to say “shouldn’t have” because I don’t regret any of it, but I remember Basketcase when I was 7 or 8 years old, and that movie’s pretty twisted. That, along with Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies. Once we got the VCR, I was able to pick my own movies so I thought, as an 8 year old boy, that I should start watching Woody Allen. I think that really affected the state of my romantic life up until well into my thirties. I thought that’s how you were supposed to act. I don’t know how movie-oriented my family was growing up. I don’t remember my father saying that he really loved any movie other than one, which was Not Now, Darling, a ’70s British comedy that I can’t imagine was all that good. And my mother wasn’t like, “Oh, you need to check out this or that.”
TB: What gravitated you to the stage and performing at a young age?
CJ: I think I just always thought that’s what I was supposed to do. Not just me, but everyone. When I was in first grade, I got a speaking role in a play. What really got me into theater was—I’d like to say it was an appreciation of Shakespeare—but it was basically Jesus Christ Superstar. I was just a very passionate young boy. I was a dork, and loved the whole rock opera thing.
TB: When I was in sixth grade, I played the “Beauty School Dropout” Angel in Grease.
CJ: Wow, that is a great one-scene role for a sixth grader.
TB: As well as the role of Eugene.
TB: Didn’t have to act too much in that role, but I stretched my range a bit with the Angel.
CJ: Grease in sixth grade. Did they leave in the whole abortion angle?!
TB: Pretty sure they did.
CJ: Wow. That’s pretty intense. I realized recently that abortion isn’t as much of a plot point in movies as it used to be. Like in Grease, a character gets an abortion. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Caddyshack, all have abortion subplots. And that’s something that’s rarely brought up in movies these days.
TB: Now it’s more on the front of “Forget the abortion, we’re gonna have the baby and we need to figure this out.” Like in Juno, Knocked Up.
CJ: All those movies vilify, and take those who think abortions are good, and turn them into unseemly characters. But then again, we have Obvious Child, so.
TB: Were you more interested in musicals, or acting in general? I know in one episode [of “Welcome to the Basement”], you say River Phoenix was your Brando growing up.
CJ: Oh yeah. It took me a couple years. Again, I assumed that anyone who wanted to do musical theater also wanted to do [straight] theater. It wasn’t until college that I realized that there was a dividing line between what type of theater. There were crossover people, but for the most part, it was musical theater and drama theater actors.
TB: When did improv come along?
CJ: I did theater up until my early thirties and then I decided I’d like a break from it. And I really liked having nights to myself, learning how to cook, being able to bike places, stuff I couldn’t do because of rehearsals. But I still wanted to get in front of people and make a fool of myself, and then improv showed up.
TB: I feel like that really informs “Welcome to the Basement,” because you make it look very easy, but I can’t imagine being able to come up with some of that quick commentary is easy. Your background in improv must’ve steered that a little bit.
CJ: Yeah. And not just when we’re riffing on movies and watching them, but just playing off each other when we’re filming the back-and-forths. But you have to keep in mind that Matt is an amazing editor. He’s a good actor, he’s a good director, good writer, but as an editor, he’s off the charts. So yeah, there are long stretches where we’re just sitting there watching the movie. And even longer stretches where Matt is the only one talking ’cause I’m just flummoxed by the entire thing.
TB: You said “Welcome to the Basement” is the one thing you’ve done that you’re the most proud of. Is it because it’s sort of the culmination of everything you’ve wanted to express: love of movies, love of performing, bantering with Matt, and having people encourage it?
CJ: Yes. That’s a large part of it. It’s also, I like me on the show. I like just being able to be me on the show, and knowing there’s an audience, I think a better version of me comes out there, where I’m slightly smarter, slightly more quick-witted, slightly better looking, slightly more charming than I am in real life. And also, it seems like it contains all of my knowledge. Anything can come out on the show, whether it’s a riff or goofing off, so it feels as though I’m using the most complete form of me.
TB: A movie lover’s life is changed with their first exposure to more artistic films; films that operate in a way that is a bit under the surface. In college, I took a class called City on Film, where I saw The Third Man, Double Indemnity, Red Desert, and Chinatown all for the first time and it was fantastic. Was there a certain time in your life when you opened up to films like that?
CJ: First off, that sounds like an amazing class. Second of all, I just stopped by my local video store—still have one here—and they were watching The Third Man in there, so you’re lucky I called you as soon as I did because I could’ve stayed in there for the next hour. But college, definitely. I did start finding, you know, foreign films and older films when I was in high school. Like Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life. But in college, they had a weekly film program and it was excellent. I find old fliers from them, and I can’t believe I had the opportunities to see all these movies back then. Also, like the first movie they showed in college was Cinema Paradiso, and when you’re 18 years old and you’re passionate and you like movies, that movie is just going to make films one of the most important things in your life right there. And the following weekend, they showed a movie called Jesus of Montreal, which is about actors, and that’s when I decided to become a theater major, so to say that the Film Society changed my life—I can safely say that without exaggeration. And of course it introduced things like Grand Hotel, Bergman, everything; all the stuff you’re supposed to watch. And eventually, I became the film critic on campus so I got to see all the movies that were showing ahead of time, privately, so that was pretty sweet. I was so impressed with the Orson Welles scene in Ed Wood, that I got up, with the theater to myself, and I kissed the screen!
TB: How did doing the show affect you as a watcher of movies? Did you find you were more attentive as a viewer?
CJ: The show revived something in me that I forgot was there. I had stepped away from movies and was focusing on theater for years, and was getting into shows like Mad Men and Deadwood, and then the show reminded me that oh, I need to get back to movies. These are the central forms of entertainment in my life, more than anything else. So I really kicked it into gear. I started keeping track of every movie I watched. I started reading up on movies more than I had been, just trying to fill in gaps that had been there for far too long, and there were a lot of them. Certain things make me feel unqualified. Like, I hadn’t seen Seventh Samurai until two months ago. And if you haven’t seen that movie, it’s… just as good as everyone says it is. So I’m kind of doing my own version of Matt’s project, watching these movies that had been on the list for a long time.
TB: What are the movies you’re able to go back to time and time again, and they’re a different movie each time?
CJ: A lot of those I’ve talked about on the show. The Third Man, to me, is fresh in my mind right now; the movies of Wes Anderson never seem to get stale. All the Coen Bros. movies, except just a handful. Miller’s Crossing: I probably have that movie memorized, I’ve seen it so many times. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve stopped rewatching movies as much as I did when I was young. I don’t know if it’s just time or the time spent going to watch whatever again means I’m not watching a new movie, but the Coens I feel like I’ll always go back to, and I’ll always find more. Most movies are finite. Most movies are… no little trick you didn’t see after a certain amount of viewings. And you know, you don’t want that moment to hit ’cause that’s when the movie gets boring. But there are movies that are bottomless. I think it was Italo Calvino who said “A masterpiece is a book that never stops revealing itself” and the same could be said about movies, architecture, etc. Those would be my favorites, those certain masterpieces.
TB: In 2011, Roger Ebert said that he’s “become more aware of the miracle it requires to make film at all”, which was his reasoning for more positive reviews in his later years. As a critic yourself, do you find you’re able to excuse bad movies when you reflect on “the miracle of film” in general?
CJ: There are certain movies you can compare to other movies. Other movies you can’t. Like a great bad movie, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [written by Roger Ebert], I would call that a great movie, even though it’s horrible on so many different levels. But no, I can’t! I’m okay with movies being substandard but I really do feel like I’m wasting my time if I’m watching a bad movie, and I understand Ebert’s saying, that yeah, a movie director’s pretty much a general commanding a small army trying to get one idea across and that’s amazing, in itself. But that doesn’t mean that I think any general is a great general. Even though it’s a great effort to make a movie, it does not make it excusable when a movie is bad.
TB: It’d be embarrassing to be the general of the Mac and Me militia.
CJ: Yeah, that would be horrible.
TB: What’s a recent movie you loved that was unexpected?
CJ: I’d say Edge of Tomorrow, the Tom Cruise movie where he keeps dying. That movie was nothing but fun for me. There’s a quote from Hitchcock: “Whenever we’re working on a screenplay, we’ll say ‘Now wouldn’t this be a fun way to kill him off?’” And it feels like that was the entire mantra of the guys who made Edge of Tomorrow. And there’s nothing not fun about watching Tom Cruise die. Over and over again. And I’m not saying I want Tom Cruise to die, but in that movie, they just find the right kind of dark humor and then it is explodable that you have the most unkillable man in Hollywood playing the part. You know, how many times has he died in a movie? It went from maybe one to thousands of times, all in one movie.
And, for some reason this last year, I saw a whole bunch of movies with John Hurt, and any year you get to see six John Hurt movies is a really amazing year.
TB: You said you gave Whiplash a standing ovation when you saw it, despite being one of only a few people in the theater. That movie’s breathtaking.
CJ: It’s rare that a non-action movie would be that tense. The only thing is, I guess Paul Thomas Anderson movies are very good at bringing out tension just from drama, like Punch Drunk Love. Me and the girl I was dating at the time basically were holding each other’s hands for dear life in that movie; I’m surprised we both didn’t come out of that movie with arthritis. We were just clenching each other so hard just from that car accident. But Whiplash, it was very, very intense. And that ending was a release and all the tension’s gone. And they conveyed that tension in a way to people like me, which is really tough to do when you have a movie about the arts because most people don’t understand that at all.
TB: You’re a big traveler. Is the travel inspired by settings you see in films at all?
CJ: I do love traveling, and if I go someplace and there’s notable architecture or something, I will try to track it down, but it doesn’t always happen. I did just go to Chile, and when you decide to go to Chile, everyone doesn’t understand why you’d want to, but it’s an amazing country. I just felt like I needed to go there, and a little part of me was wondering if it’s ’cause I saw the movie Missing back when I was 8 or 9 years old. And the movie doesn’t put the country in the best light, with an American disappearing down there. But I found the movie fascinating when I was a kid, and I saw it again recently and it’s a really strong movie, and I kind of wonder if it’s to do with the childhood horror that it could actually happen. However, Chile is a big country now and doesn’t have a dictatorship or anything. So, Chile was partly chosen from a political propaganda movie from 1982.
TB: What’s your favorite state to visit?
CJ: Oh, Oregon. Don’t even have to think about it. The coast of Oregon is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s everything I want.
TB: What’s your favorite Criterion Collection movie?
CJ: Passion of Joan of Arc.
TB: Favorite album?
CJ: Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
TB: Favorite film score?
CJ: John Williams, early stuff. Star Wars. So powerful and so unstoppable.
TB: Favorite shot in any movie?
CJ: In Scorsese’s After Hours, when Rosanna Arquette winks at Griffin Dunne. It’s a rack zoom with a lens flare and it captures what it feels like to have a woman wink at you. It was then that I realized that Scorsese can duplicate how the eye works. It is maybe a second long, but it tells a whole story. It’s exciting and erotic and joyful and a little scary.
TB: What’s a film you depise?
CJ: The Way Way Back. I do not think I’ve ever seen a talent bomb of that magnitude in my entire life. Everything wrong about that movie is everything.