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That résumé peaks with the four and a half years Mitchell put in as co–lead film critic at the New York Times (1999-2004) and two semesters as a guest lecturer at Harvard (2004). "He's certainly the most powerful black film critic in history, full stop," Harvard professor Henry "Skip" Gates told New York magazine that year.
Two words often dropped in criticism of Mitchell are "opportunist" and "flake." Some would say these are not mutually exclusive: Unable to say no to offers and invitations, Mitchell has been known to be so overscheduled that such basic job requirements as communicating with editors and meeting deadlines tend to fall through the cracks. Mitchell also has long baited charges of conflict of interest. (In 1992, he spent a few months as a development exec at Paramount, a post from which he reportedly was fired for refusing to give up a simultaneous gig reviewing movies on NPR's Weekend Edition.)
When FIND announced Mitchell's hiring for the LACMA job on June 16, it was hours before the Los Angeles Film Festival's opening-night, open-bar party. It quickly became a hot topic within a crowd thick with film journalists, curators and festival programmers — some of whom had applied for the job. Wagers were laid on how long Mitchell would last at the position. One friend joked that the hiring might be Govan's attempt to take a page from The Producers — engineering a program destined to fail, so that he could kill off Film at LACMA once and for all.
This kind of bitter bitchery is nothing unusual. Journalists, filmmakers, random people on the street — it seems everyone has an Elvis Mitchell story. Both those who consider themselves Friends of Elvis and those whose relationships with him are sour or worse are happy to dish about him — albeit almost always off the record. Some are afraid of losing current or future jobs in the ever-more-tenuous world of film journalism. Others simply enjoy his admittedly fine company too much to risk losing it.
This reticence only fuels a legend that some suggest is overblown.
"I do not recognize the Elvis Mitchell who is often written about in the press," screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Ocean's Thirteen), a friend of Mitchell's for 14 years, told me via email. "The guy I know is focused, present, insanely bright and totally reliable."
Over lunch at Ray's, when the conversation turns to Mitchell as a constant topic of conversation, the critic-turned-curator sits back in his chair and smiles slyly. "I kind of like it that people gossip about me."
Not that he'll cop to reading any of that gossip — just as most filmmakers claim they don't read reviews.
When asked about his work history, Mitchell says, "I haven't moved around that much." He points to the gigs he's held on to for more than a decade, his once-a-week spots on NPR and KCRW. "I mean, I end up doing a couple of things at a time, but that's OK. I like being stimulated."
Mitchell says neither of his two high-profile job exits this year is relevant to his new position. "The Ebert thing just didn't work out, we just couldn't, like, come to an agreement. And Movieline, they obviously didn't want me, because they fired me."
While Chaz Ebert, wife of Roger and producer of At the Movies, did not respond to an email request for comment, a Friend of Elvis suggests one reason why Mitchell and the Eberts "couldn't come to an agreement" is because Mitchell may have been concerned that the show, a low-budget affair produced independently in Chicago and aired on public TV, was too small-time for him. That would jibe with the oft-reported notion of Mitchell as a social climber, whose work as a critic arguably is compromised by his desire to live the kind of life enjoyed by the people who make movies.
Mitchell acknowledges that he feeds this part of his legend: "I dress well, I travel, I seem to be relatively glamorous for a film guy — which, to me, is like being the fastest midget in the circus," a phrase he uses to denote something meaningless.
Movieline also ignored a request for comment, but sources say that during his brief employment for the site, Mitchell was hard to reach and bad with deadlines — not terribly unusual for a star columnist. This was tolerated until director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) took to Twitter to protest Mitchell's review of his sci-fi flick Source Code.
While the review was generally negative, Jones took particular issue with this couplet: "It's up to Jeffrey Wright, as the administrator supervising the Source Code — the machine that keeps firing Colter back, back, back to the recent past — and his eccentric brio to keep the silliness from piling up like ash from his pipe. That's how you know this film is science fiction — someone is smoking indoors in the United States — and that Wright is a martinet whose malevolence must be checked."
The problem, to quote Jones' tweet: "Find it odd Movieline choose to complain about Jeffrey Wright smoking a pipe, something in an old draft of the script that's not in the film."
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