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Film critic Marshall Fine back in director’s chair with documentary on Robert Klein

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Marshall Fine has been associated with movies for more than four decades — as a critic, not a filmmaker. But on occasion, the Minnesota native has switched sides.

His latest venture is “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” a documentary about the legendary comedian and his influence on a generation of standups, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and Billy Crystal, all of whom agreed to sit down with the “enemy” for the project.

Fine, a three-time chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle and former reviewer for Gannett News Service, chatted recently by phone while smoking a cigar on the front porch of his New York home.

Q: Why Robert Klein?

A: He’s a comedy hero of mine. He, along with George Carlin and Richard Pryor, changed the face of comedy. About 18 years ago, Robert said in concert that he was working on material for an HBO special. I proposed a story where I would follow his progress and I spent close to a year with him. He lives just 10 minutes away from me. I had the idea for a documentary back then, but it took some time before we could get to it.

Q: How long have you wanted to be a director?

A: It’s less about directing and more about telling stories. It’s not that I had a burning artistic vision. I was just trying to get the story out.

Q: You previously made a documentary about Rex Reed and have written several books. What’s it like when you’re on the receiving end of criticism?

A: It’s funny. When my first book came out, I would read reviews and say, “OK, I’ve written that review before.” Sometimes they made no sense and it was clear that they really wanted me to make something else. I think, as a critic, you develop a pretty thick skin.

Q: Did being reviewed change your approach to criticism?

A: No, it didn’t. I’ve always felt that I was being honest. Maybe snarkier than others, but honest. But I’ve stopped doing reviews. I had been a critic for more than 40 years. I reached a point where it was hard to have an opinion on something I didn’t care about.

Q: You got a lot of big names for this film. Any of them have a grudge with you?

A: No. I’ve said some pretty harsh things about some of Billy Crystal’s films, but he was too professional to say anything. This was all about Robert. They all did it for him, not for me. He’s somebody they all look up to. In doing my research, I found four or five instances of Jerry Seinfeld saying Robert was the guy who pointed him in the right direction. He’s the first person I approached and when he said yes, it became easier to get everybody else.

Q: What do you say to people who think a critic shouldn’t cross over to the other side?

A: I’ve had bosses like that. When I was working at Gannett, I made a short documentary and started entering it in contests. They had a clear ethics policy that you had to inform them when you were doing something like that, so I did. At first, they had no problem with it. But when it got into a third festival, they told me they didn’t want me to do it anymore, that I couldn’t be part of the film industry. I would argue that a short-form documentary isn’t really part of the film industry, but most newspapers believe you have to make a choice: Either you’re a participant or a spectator. But I feel it deepens your understanding of the craft.

Q: If I could put on my critic’s hat for a moment: The movie is very entertaining, with a big emphasis on clips of Klein’s performances, but there isn’t a lot of biographical information.

A: The guiding principle I got from Robert is that it had to be funny. I wanted to put him in the context of not where he came from, but where he went. There are a lot of documentaries that practice journalism, and certainly I’m selling a story here. But my point was never to play “gotcha” or have some big reveal. This is just an appreciation of what he’s accomplished.

Q: Will you read the reviews of this film?

A: I’ve had celebrities tell me over the years that they never read the reviews. That’s bull. Of course, I’ll read them. Will I believe them? It depends on what they say.

 

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