Videodrome :: In Conversation With Matthew Specktor On Shoot The Moon

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

Although known as a writer, Matthew Specktor is also an ardent cinephile, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of film history. One need look no further than his books – That Summertime Sound (2009), The Sting (2011), American Dream Machine (2013), and Always Crashing in the Same Car (2021) – to realize that Specktor wields an astonishing comprehension of pop culture, which he communicates with not only scholarly expertise, but passion and heart. A child of divorce and a divorcee himself, Specktor has eloquently – and heartbreakingly – written about relationships coming apart, often connecting his personal experiences to mass media that shares the same emotional DNA, creating a literary tapestry of art and life in all its beauty and messiness. So it should come as no surprise that Specktor has a fondness for the Hollywood cycle of divorce films from the early eighties, many of which were released in tandem with his own parent’s divorce.

Alan Parker’s Shoot The Moon (1982) is amongst these films: a meditative examination of a husband and wife (played by Albert Finney and Diane Keaton) ending their fifteen-year-long marriage and the subsequent jealousy, anger, and bitterness that ensues.

On a sunny afternoon in late January, we spoke with Specktor via Zoom to discuss Shoot The Moon, the canon of divorce films from the eighties, and his upcoming book. The following is a transcript of our conversation. | e hehr

Aquarium Drunkard: How’s the new book coming along?

Matthew Specktor: It’s good. It’s with my editor for the time being, and then it’ll come back to me. There’s still a lot left to do with it. This one has been very hard. I probably wrote the first seventy-five or hundred pages at least a dozen times before I finally found the way in that would work.

AD: Because we’re discussing Hollywood divorce films from the eighties, I was wondering if the material in your new book shares any kind of connective tissue to those films.

Matthew Specktor: I mean, it’s a part of it. It’s certainly central to it emotionally. But I think mostly, I’m interested in micro-trends or micro-genres and how they sweep through movies – or used to sweep through movies – with this kind of viral intensity. Remember that moment in the late nineties, right around 2000, when there were a billion movies that had titles with a verb followed by a proper noun? Like Saving Silverman or Finding Forrester. Or earlier in the nineties, there was a slew of movies that all had these titles that sounded slightly legal or actuarial: Fatal Attraction, Final Analysis, Basic Instinct. Those are all obvious testaments to how people in Hollywood try to rip each other off or do rip each other off (laughs). Movies are always a barometer of the greater American experience.

I think my parents divorced in 1981 – I would’ve been fourteen years old – and it happened to be right around the time the divorce movies were coming out. All of these boomers in Hollywood were getting divorced, so they were making movies about getting divorced, and I found that fascinating. I find it more fascinating in retrospect because you look at those stories now and you’re like, “Nobody would want to make a movie about this.” No one would be like, “My parents got divorced or I got divorced so now I’m making a movie about it.” The only person who’s done that in recent memory is Noam Baumbach with Marriage Story or even The Squid and the Whale. But you look back on many of those divorce films from the early eighties, and you say to yourself, “Man, this is just privileged white people making very small movies about their personal problems.” Movies have forfeited those smaller-scale domestic stories to television, and I don’t think television really contends. The loss of small-scale storytelling in movies is a cultural loss.

I thought of Shoot The Moon – which I hadn’t seen in a long time until pretty recently – as being the best of those divorce movies. I watched it again last night, and I still think it’s a masterpiece. I don’t think most people know it or remember it. It’s a movie that hasn’t been widely re-embraced. In my memory, it was a movie about divorce, but you look at it now and realize it’s also about domestic violence. It’s much, much darker than I remember. When it was initially released, I don’t think it was conceived of as being a movie about emotional violence or domestic violence. It was just considered to be how people acted when they were getting divorced. It’s more or less how my parents behaved. There was certainly some violence in my family, most of it emotional. My mom didn’t handle herself too well.

AD: So your parents were getting divorced around the time that Shoot The Moon came out?

Matthew Specktor: Yeah. I can’t speak to what the divorce statistics were or what the bell curve of divorce statistics had been before, but it seemed like everyone was getting divorced right around that time. My parents got divorced, and my friend’s parents were getting divorced. It felt really epidemic. And when I got divorced, I remember thinking it would happen to all my friends too. Fortunately, it didn’t happen to most of my friends, which is really quite lovely and amazing.

AD: I’m a huge fan of what could be called the “marriage-in-crisis” story across all formats, whether it be Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee or Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I’ve noticed that those “marriage in crisis” stories from the midcentury are usually about people suffering through marriages – not necessarily ending them, but constantly battling each other and slowly destroying themselves. The marriages are coming apart internally but externally stay intact. Then you move on to something like Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979, and all of a sudden everyone’s getting divorced as opposed to staying in these miserable marriages. Do you think this is a case of art reflecting society and showing the shift in social norms from the sixties to the eighties?

Matthew Specktor: Well, obviously, those things still happen. Those older stories still have resonance even though cultural expectations have shifted. People still do those things – they still suffer through their marriages. But fortunately, the models for marriage and partnership seem to be growing considerably more expansive, and that’s a good thing.

AD: Did you see Shoot The Moon for the first time when it came out?

Matthew Specktor: Yeah, I saw it with my mom in the wake of my parent’s divorce. My mom was a remarkable person. She was also an alcoholic. And that episode of my parent’s divorce was surrounded by a lot of caretaking. There was a lot of abusive behavior that I didn’t recognize as abusive until much later. The emotional vernacular of a movie like Shoot The Moon is so brutal. In many ways, it’s like an American version of an Ingmar Bergman film. At the time, it felt like – to me – a very realistic depiction of how adults actually acted. It strayed away from this idea of “adults” that had been prevalent since the fifties, you know? Adults were supposed to be adults. The father was supposed to be the head of the household, and there were all these other antiquated, bullshit ideas. Sometime in the late seventies, it suddenly seemed like everyone realized they weren’t adults and that there wasn’t such a thing as “adults.” I mean, does anybody ever feel like an adult? I’m fifty-five years old, and I feel like an adult in some respects, but in many respects, I still feel like a teenager. I think something like Shoot The Moon captures that feeling.

AD: I remember a point in Always Crashing in the Same Car when you wrote this beautiful bit of prose about your mom and letting her disappear into the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was so haunting and heartbreaking; it stuck with me. Does a film like Shoot The Moon resonate with your relationship with your mom in any way, and how much of your mom do you find in Diane Keaton’s character as a kind of avatar of divorced mothers from that time?

Matthew Specktor: Quite a lot. My mom loved Diane Keaton. We watched Annie Hall and a lot of those Woody Allen movies together when I was younger. I think my mom was sometimes explicit about identifying herself with Diane Keaton. At the same time Keaton was doing Shoot The Moon, she was also doing Reds – another amazing movie that was very big for my mom as a leftist. So whether consciously or explicitly, I definitely identified my mom with Keaton.

AD: Do you think Kramer vs. Kramer winning Best Picture at the Oscars in 1980 served as the catalyst for all these Hollywood divorce films throughout the eighties?

Matthew Specktor: Well, right before Kramer vs. Kramer you have this small cluster of films about marriages and divorce like An Unmarried Woman in 1978 and Starting Over in 1979 – both of which star Jill Clayburgh. So Kramer vs. Kramer wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was the one that validated all the others. I haven’t seen Kramer vs. Kramer in a long time, but I don’t remember loving it. That one always felt a little self-pitying. Besides The Graduate or Straw Dogs, I don’t always respond that well to Dustin Hoffman on screen. When I was a teenager, I worked in an office where Dustin was casting Tootsie and struck up one of those “teenager/adult” friendships with him. I liked him personally, but I don’t always respond to his films. But Kramer vs. Kramer does capture the grain and texture of a specific time and place. I’m a period and location fetishist, so I’m always happy to wade into a movie from 1979 – even if it’s a mediocre movie – to see the time and location.

AD: Regarding location, I read that Shoot The Moon was initially set in Chicago, but they changed it to the Marin County area of northwestern California for production reasons. Maybe it’s because Alan Parker directed it, but it’s one of the more dreary depictions of California I’ve seen in a film. Those opening establishing shots might as well be England.

Matthew Specktor: Yeah, it has that foggy, overcast, diffused look. The house in the movie is beautiful, but there’s a kind of pornography to it. You know, you’re introduced to this successful writer living in this enormous house on all this land, and he’s winning fictitious book awards. It’s a very funny look into the lifestyle of a writer (laughs).

This is a whole other subject, but I’m fascinated by the way a lot of the movies from the eighties – especially the erotic thrillers of the eighties – purport to be about sex but are really about money. The really pervy stuff in a movie like 9 1/2 Weeks isn’t the sexual relationship. It’s Mickey Rourke’s apartment, his houseboat – all the lush stuff. The house in Shoot The Moon is beautiful, but it exists to get wrecked – literally physically wrecked. Shoot The Moon anchors itself a little closer to the movies of the seventies. It doesn’t have as much of the lifestyle porn that many eighties movies do.

AD: I’ve noticed that most of these divorce films are predominantly about wealthy couples. You don’t get as many insights into the divorces of the middle class or lower class as much as the upper class. You mentioned earlier that during the early eighties, many producers and executives in the film industry were going through divorces themselves. Do you think that’s why these films seem to focus on affluent couples?

Matthew Specktor: Of course. I mean, they did call it the “me generation” for a reason, right? It’s part of the problem Hollywood has always had: it can never seem to represent itself faithfully. Outside of something like The Player, Hollywood movies about Hollywood are not very convincing. Historically, Hollywood has always been tremendously myopic, tremendously privileged, and tremendously self-focused. You can find movies about working-class people throughout the seventies – they do exist. But by 1979, they were becoming less frequent. You still have Norma Rae and Coal Miner’s Daughter, but those types of movies were beginning to feel more novelty, which I also think reflects the cultural schism of the time between red and blue, rural and urban America.

AD: This Hollywood cycle of divorce films really kicks off in 1979 with Kramer vs. Kramer, and then you have The Last Married Couple in America in 1980, Table for Five in 1983, The Good Mother in 1988, The War of The Roses in 1989 – the list goes on and on. What do you think sets Shoot The Moon apart from all these other like-minded films?

Matthew Specktor: I think it’s the most emotionally explosive. It has the best screenplay out of all of them. It’s a movie that really draws blood.

AD: The screenplay was written by Bo Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I just recently saw Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard for the first time, also written by Bo Goldman. Are you a fan of Goldman’s other work outside of Shoot The Moon?

Matthew Specktor: Of course! I’m a huge fan of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard. I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager, but I also remember liking The Rose with Bette Midler. Those are all great movies. And I would also say that Alan Parker has a really strong filmography too. Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express were big movies of my adolescence, and – as hokey as it was – Fame was also part of that same landscape.

AD: Fame comes right before Shoot The Moon, and Shoot The Moon was released the same year as Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall. Fame and Pink Floyd: The Wall are very music-heavy films, and sandwiched between them you get Shoot The Moon, which is incredibly minimal. What are your thoughts on the use of music in Shoot The Moon?

Matthew Specktor: It’s a very quiet film. I was just thinking about the score, which is that sort of sparse piano theme that repeats.

AD: Yeah, I read that Goldman selected the song from MGM’s music library. It was just a simple piano piece the studio had lying around.

Matthew Specktor: Yeah, it’s interesting because although the film is very quiet, it has all these memorable musical moments. There’s that devastating scene of Diane Keaton getting high in the bathtub and singing “If I Fell” by The Beatles, and that awkward courtship scene between Keaton and Peter Weller in the living room listening to “Play With Fire” by The Rolling Stones. I like movies – and I miss movies – that allow a lot of silence in them, whether it’s sequences without dialogue or little to no score. It feels like it’s been a disease in Hollywood for a long time – the score getting dragged over everything.

AD: For sure. I find myself thinking about that all the time, especially regarding horror films. The score tells you how to feel: you should feel nervous right now, or you should feel scared right now. There are all these older horror films – something like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes to mind – that are great examples of how much more disturbing and frightening a scene can be when you strip back music and you’re left to linger in the discomfort of a scene. I think it’s much more emotionally effective than having a score suggest or stipulate how you should feel.

Matthew Specktor: Generally speaking, I think you’re right. I’m always looking for that sort of room and space to be unsure about what I’m reading and watching. And to be honest, sometimes I’m also looking for that in what I’m listening to. I don’t always want to be sure of something the first time around. It can be good to be rendered a little uncomfortable.

AD: Looking back on Shoot The Moon, how do you feel it has aged?

Matthew Specktor: I think it has aged really well. I mean, emotionally, it has aged well. I’m sure some people would watch it now and think that when Albert Finney breaks into the house and starts swatting his kid with a hairbrush – or that horrifying ending sequence – that it’s a movie about domestic violence and spousal abuse amongst wealthy, white people. I can see why people would have trouble with it from a contemporary lens. Marriage Story is a very different kind of movie, and I don’t think it’s trying to be Shoot The Moon, but in my mind, there’s no way Noah Baumbach wasn’t influenced by something like Shoot The Moon.

I think audiences today would struggle with the violence of it. As a Gen X-er, it’s kind of insane that I watched Shoot The Moon and thought, “Yeah, this is a great movie because it’s an accurate depiction of how divorcing adults behave.” Thank God those behaviors aren’t normalized anymore! But I also think it’s just so wrenching. The way it chooses to resolve itself – that ending is a knockout, absolutely crushing. So I think it holds up spectacularly well, although you should probably slap a “content warning” sticker on it for people who are younger than me (laughs).

The performances are so good, and they get so much out of each scene. That opening sequence, when Diane Keaton is surrounded by her kids, and they’re trying to help her with her makeup – it’s so beautifully directed. And I think those performances from the kids are pretty decent, which is surprising considering how hard it is to bring children into a dramatic scenario and use them for anything other than cheap effects.

AD: Yeah, that opening sequence is great, when they’re getting ready to go to the awards ceremony. It’s the first time you see Albert Finney and Diane Keaton interact with each other as husband and wife, and it conveys so much in such a short span of time. I love a line of dialogue that Albert Finney delivers in response to Diane Keaton talking about a dress she wore to the awards ceremony the year prior. She tells him she isn’t wearing that dress because it got ruined the previous year when Finney spilled wine on it after finding out he didn’t win the award, and Finney responds, “You always remember the wrong things.” It’s such an economical line of dialogue to introduce the dynamic of their relationship, and there’s also a kind of universal sentiment to it that I think a lot of couples can quickly identify with – you know, being upset with the way their spouses remember things.

Matthew Specktor: I agree. It’s a great line. Even outside of the dialogue, there are all those amazing nonverbal cues between them, like when they’re at the dinner, and you’re just watching her face looking at him with all this suppressed hostility.

AD: Yeah, there’s a lot of shots where Parker lets the camera linger on a character’s expression. Instead of cutting after they deliver their line of dialogue, he holds on their expressions for a few beats longer, and those extra few seconds often say so much more than the character’s dialogue or adds some new kind of context to it. The film has explosive scenes, but so much of it exists in those quiet moments of a relationship.

Matthew Specktor: I feel like Pauline Kael – who loved this movie – wrote about that. And there’s this absence of vanity that animates the two lead performances. Diane Keaton and Albert Finney weren’t particularly old when they shot this, but they look so middle-aged in a very truthful way. Those facets of mortality that pulse throughout the movie – even the scene with the father in the hospital – feel very real to me.

AD: So this is a free Zoom session, which means it will kick us off at the forty-minute mark. We have a few minutes left, and I want to talk to you more about your upcoming book.

Matthew Specktor: It’s interesting for me because the whole notion of writing about the movies is something I never intended to do. I’m not a film critic, and I’m not a film historian. Furthermore, I was much more invested in books and music when I was younger. But eventually,I came to understand that Los Angeles and movies are my home-ground, so I may as well write about them. It’s like Philip Roth writing about Newark, or Saul Bellow writing about Chicago, or Toni Morrison writing about Ohio, or Faulkner writing about Mississippi. I alluded to this earlier
in our conversation, but I’m very interested in how the movies throughout the twentieth century reflected the national mood and reality of the time. I guess they still do that, but movies aren’t as much a part of the cultural conversation anymore. The dominance of Marvel movies and superhero movies – at the risk of really irritating people who love those movies – seems intrinsically fascist to me.

The book I’m writing now is a memoir like Always Crashing in the Same Car, but it’s written much more like a novel. Everything happens in scene. It spans about seventy years, starting in the early fifties and running all the way through the 2010s. There’s an intimate family portrait, but there’s also a wider historical narrative that runs through it about the people who were around my parents and me. When my dad was twenty-two years old, he went to work for a guy named Lew Wasserman, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s agents. Wasserman helped construct Reagan
as a television personality, which is how Reagan’s political career was able to exist. And when I was a kid, my dad was putting together movies with BBS Productions – who did Five Easy Pieces – and Bert Schneider was the head of BBS and very close with Huey Newton. So all these historical figures enter the book – Wasserman, Reagan, Newton – and help carry the larger narrative. It’s a big, big story.

AD: Any idea of when we can expect it?

Matthew Specktor: I don’t know yet, but I’m supposed to know soon. I imagine it will be out next year. My hope would be sometime in the first half of 2024.

AD: It was great talking with you, Matthew. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Matthew Specktor: Great talking with you too, man! I love Aquarium Drunkard so much, and I have for so many years. I feel like out of all the things I did for Always Crashing in the Same Car, making that mixtape for Aquarium Drunkard was my favorite, and by far the thing I obsessed over the most.

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