Essential SF Q&A: Michael Fox

By Pam Grady

This year, the Film Society is thrilled to welcome journalist Michael Fox into our Essential SF circle. This ongoing compendium celebrates the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions, shining a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world. Fox is usually on the “Q” end of a Q&A—a journalist and critic constantly in demand for onstage interviews with filmmakers and the like, valued for his bonhomie, erudition and wit. That gig grew out of his writing, his byline a familiar one to cineastes for the past three decades as he has written for periodicals that include Film Month, Calendar; which became SF Weekly; Release Print; San Francisco Bay Guardian; East Bay Monthly; the Northern California Jewish Bulletin, which became j; Greencine; the San Francisco Film Society’s own former publication, SF360; Greencine; Fandor; KQED Arts; Eat Drink Films; and many, many more. He is also an in-demand film note writer, whose work has appeared in the programs for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. As he reveals in this interview, he could have stayed in his native Chicago, but luckily for the Bay Area film scene, he decided to try his luck here.

San Francisco Film Society: When did you come here?

Michael Fox: 1985, a month after my 30th birthday and a few months after my first midlife crisis.

SFFS: The Essential SF press release mentions that you came to the Bay Area for a totally different job. What were you doing?

MF: I have an MBA and I was a financial analyst…I came here to consult with people in Marin County about their cash flow. It was an existing business, a small business…I had the choice between printing up my own cards and starting my own business and staying in Chicago where I knew lots of people or coming out where I literally knew one person, but there was this existing entity, structure. Moving across country felt safer than printing up business cards.

SFFS: How did you go from that to writing about film?

MF: My deal with them was that I would not sell. I would service clients, but I would not sell…They said, ‘We need you to do cold calls.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ So I was unemployed, living in the Haight, and I’d been a film buff since college. That’s where I really discovered movies, the European movies of Tanner and De Sica and Bertolucci; Last Tango in Paris; The Garden of Finzi-Continis; Lacombe, Lucien; La salamandre, these kind of open-ended films that had intellectual qualities that I didn’t associate with or find in American films. That’s when I became a film buff.

So, I was living in the Haight and I would go out and pick up all the free papers and I came across one called Film Month, which was maybe eight pages...It covered the rep houses, the Castro, Red Vic, Roxie, and whatever there was. I called ostensibly because I couldn’t find the paper on Haight Street and we got to talking and the editor/publisher said, ‘Do you have any of their schedules?’ Sure, they were all over my fridge. ‘Well, why don’t you find a double bill and call me back and tell me what you want to write about.’ That was my first assignment.

SFFS: You do more than write about film.

MF: This is the end of the 10th year that I’ve been hosting and co-curating the Friday night film series at the Mechanics Institute on Post called Cinema Lit. And I’ve been teaching—someone at UC Extension, a woman named Michelle Rabkin—this was before the first tech bubble, I think—she curated the photography, wine, and film classes, and wrote me a letter inviting me to teach. I brought in guests. I couldn’t teach history or theory or filmmaking, I brought in guests. I’d bring in a filmmaker, maybe a producer, a distributor, a publicist, an exhibitor. I did doc filmmakers. One of the people who had taken the class ran the Osher program for people over 50 in Berkeley. I teach at the Osher programs OLLI, that’s the abbreviation for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, at SF State and Berkeley. I’ve done those for maybe 10 years or so, always documentary classes. Then there were five or six years when Lynn Hershman Leeson was at the Art Institute and when she came in and headed up the film department, she invited me to teach. I taught documentary classes there, History of Documentary Ethics was probably my favorite class to teach. I think that’s the extent of my other film activities.

SFFS: What about Q&As? You’ve done your share.

MF: This came up when I was falling asleep last night, and with Zoë Elton being one of the honorees—I include these as among the high points of my career, even though in the moment, you’re not really present and you’re a nervous wreck. But I did three Q&As at the Mill Valley Film Festival over the years: Denys Arcand, Rob Nilsson and Paul Schrader. In terms of screenings, Eric Roth, John Madden, those two come to mind. There was a master class with Ken Burns on a Saturday morning at Mill Valley where he went on longer than I’m going on. I would just throw a question at him. There’ve been panels and juries at the United Nations Festival.

SFFS: You’ve been here for 30 years now. What made you set down roots?

MF: Going back to that crazy job, if it had been in Houston or Atlanta, I wouldn’t have taken it. I had something going on with San Francisco.

SFFS: Had you been here before?

MF: As a real little kid with my folks. It’s a weird thing, but I was a White Sox fan growing up. I was sort of a black-and-white kid. I went with the philosophy that if you root for one team, you root against the other team. So I rooted against the Cubs, which meant I had to pick a National League team and I picked the Giants. I had a Willie Mays poster on my wall as a kid. I would not have said that I’m going to move to San Francisco, because of that, so I don’t want to make too much of that.

Also, San Francisco and New York were the kind of places where you would go to reinvent yourself. San Francisco, I realized after I got here was a place where they didn’t care what your last name was or who your father was or where you grew up, because no one knew that neighborhood you grew up in. All they cared about was, who are you and what do you do? What can you do?

To me, this is important, I didn’t have journalism background. I didn’t have that kind of career ambition. When I started writing about movies, I was not motivated, at the beginning or at any point, by an urge to write about Hollywood films. A lot of people are very good at that. A lot of people see trends or can interpret pop culture moments in movies, but that’s not really my thing. This may sound a little self-aggrandizing, but I got into this because I wanted to bring attention to foreign films, independent films, and documentaries. It sounds naïve now, because now everything is publicity-driven, but in those days I was naïve. I was just naïve and felt that it if was your passion, somehow you could get that stuff in the paper, not realizing that editors had their own agendas and that there were audiences they were catering to.

Pretty quickly, I figured out there was no narrative film scene here, it was a documentary scene. That was who here to talk to and to cover. I don’t know if that’s kept me here, but it’s certainly allowed me plenty of subjects to write about every year on an ongoing basis and I was lucky that I had outlets who were interested in local filmmakers and who recognized the importance of that tradition and that there were a lot of them here.

SFFS: What to you is an Essential SF film experience now in 2015?

MF: Seeing a movie with an audience. I think any film festival at the Roxie or the Castro, connecting in some way with the other people who love movies and respond to movies in their own and/or collective way. I’m sure this is not my original insight, but I’m not stealing it. I don’t think I read it somewhere, but movies have always been this odd fusion of public and private experience. Everyone sees their own movie and is moved to respond to whatever they identify with. At the same time, you’re with a crowd, at least when we were growing up. You were with people and you were in a public space, which is increasingly in 2015, a precious commodity, public spaces where people from different backgrounds get together and commune in unpredictable—well, in unscripted ways. So I find that as valuable as ever, seeing a movie with an audience.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker and curator Craig Baldwin, longtime film distributor California Newsreel, Mill Valley Film Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton, journalist Michael Fox and filmmakers Jenni Olson and Jennifer Phang—will be honored at this annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.