Sardonic Joe

By Jamie Dawson, Contributor
February / March 2004

Joe Queenan’s no-holds-barred satirical writing is not for every palate. He jabs, stabs, pokes, prods, and otherwise mangles various aspects of American culture (not to mention European culture and Third World culture) like a dentist performing a root canal without an anesthetic or a disgruntled postal worker creating balloon animals. It’s often not pretty, but is certainly entertaining, and, in most cases, quite enlightening.

During the past 20 years Queenan has published eight books, countless magazine articles (for GQ, Movieline, Spy, and The Wall Street Journal, among many others) and guested on nearly every available talk show. Very often Queenan’s prey is the movies (his bio lists him as a former movie critic though some might argue he still is one). Professional sports and pop culture are also frequent victims. Last July Hyperion Books published Queenan’s True Believers, which chronicles his experiences as a dyed-in-the-wool (and long-suffering) Philadelphia sports fan. He states that his next book is to be, interestingly enough, about England, its culture, history, and influence on himself (his wife, Francesca, is English) and the rest of the world.

Jamie Dawson sat down with Queenan at a diner near his office in Tarrytown, New York, to discuss his opinions on movies (Irish and otherwise) and his sense of being an Irish-American.

Jamie Dawson: Do you identify or label yourself an Irish-American?

Joe Queenan: First of all, to a certain extent, all ethnicity is a fraud.

It’s just a thing that people use to make life more interesting. The Italians have their food and they have Arthur Avenue [in the Bronx]; the Irish have the Blarney Stone and the Chieftains and stuff like that. If you grow up an Irish-American, you don’t have anything to do with Ireland. My grandparents left Ireland and never wanted to go back. My parents said they wouldn’t even talk about it. They were just so proud to be American. My parents are American; I’m an American. I think my parents think that Irish shillelagh stuff is a load of crap. Same with St. Patrick’s Day. Load of crap.

Did your heritage have a profound impact on you while you were growing up?

Being working-class [had more of an impact] than being Irish-American.

When they came to the United States my grandparents didn’t have any money, my parents didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any money as a kid and now I do have money and my kid goes to Harvard, so my kids aren’t going to have to go through what I went through.

But growing up with an Irish background must’ve had some influence.

Irish Catholic, yes; Irish-American, not so much. There are certain things about the Irish Catholic experience that shape your attitudes.

You’re taught at a very early age that there’s right and there’s wrong, that there’s good and there’s evil and that there are no shades of gray. I want things to be simple.

That attitude certainly comes through in your writing, but is it also the reason behind your wanting to become a priest?

I only went to Catholic schools. Catholic grade school, the seminary (for a year), St. Joseph’s College (which is Jesuit), and then the Sorbonne, which was founded by Catholics. There was a certain status to being a priest when I was a kid. The priests and nuns who taught me were fantastic. Great teachers. Dedicated and very bright. I studied to be a Maryknoll, to be a missionary, because it was exotic — I might go away to Africa or someplace like that — get out of Philadelphia.

What happened to that ambition?

Oh, God, there’s so much pressure on you. You know, you’re seven years old and kids say, I want to be a fireman or I want to be a cop and you go “I want to be a priest” and then, after that, the priests are coming to your house every Sunday like NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) recruiters, taking you out all the time asking “Do you still have a vocation? Do you still want to be a priest?” So, there was that, but also, we’re 13 year old boys and we’re in the seminary with guys who were in the Bataan death march. Guys who were tortured by the Red Chinese. They had no respect for us. They had less respect for us than our fathers. None of the kids I went to the seminary with became priests.

Do you regret that choice?

Not at all. I wanted to be a person who made his own hours, dressed in black, had mysterious financial resources and handed down pronouncements as if they were infallible. So that’s what I am. I just don’t have to serve Holy Communion.

Are you still connected to the Catholic Church?

My parting with the Catholic Church came about because of two things: (a) they got rid of the Latin Mass and (b) the Kiss of Peace. I wrote an essay when I was twelve that won a contest in Philadelphia that said if the Church got rid of all the mumbo-jumbo and the mystery, then it would just be Protestantism and Protestantism isn’t a religion; it’s a place to go and hang out with people — a club.

And the Kiss of Peace?

No. No, I don’t want to kiss you. Sorry. It’s not because you might have some kind of STD, it’s just I don’t know you. It’s like with the Men’s Movement and the hugging. No, I don’t want to hug you.

Why not?

Because Irish-Americans don’t want to appear ridiculous. Particularly men. Because they have a strong sense that there’s a way a man is supposed to behave. It’s like the thing in corporate culture where they’re too chummy, where they are always kind of doing this [Queenan reaches across the table and squeezes my arm and shoulder]. I go nuts when they do that. Maybe it comes from being in fraternities or something. Don’t touch me. It’s just not part of my culture. We’re not frivolous people. I don’t have time for frivolity. I don’t have time for Writers’ Centers and seminars about Healing. So your father beat you up when you were a kid? It doesn’t mean you have to wander around the rest of your life whining about it. Change your life.

If you’re Irish-American, it means you don’t have any patience for anything New Age. I don’t have time for quacks or frauds. If Dr. Phil says he’s going to write a book on how to lose weight, I’m just going to laugh at the guy. He’s a fat slob, he’s 240 pounds. He should take off 30 pounds, then write a book on how to lose weight.

That’s what being Irish-American means to you? Not wanting to appear ridiculous?

That, and once you’ve developed an opinion about something you cling to it implacably. You just never change your opinion. If you start off not liking somebody or something, it’s never going to change. Holding grudges is an Irish-American thing. Never forgiving.

I think that Irish-Americans have a gloomy view of the world. They tend to feel that if the other guy is up, then they’re down. If the other guy is successful, then it reflects badly on them. There’s definitely a sense that if somebody is successful, then it’s because they got all the breaks and I never did.

Holding grudges brings up an interesting point about being Irish-American. Is that why you feel the way you do about Mickey Rourke?

(Note: Queenan has a particular tendency to set his sarcastic scope on ex-pugilist and sometime character actor Mickey Rourke. Of the film A Prayer for the Dying in which Rourke plays an IRA terrorist, Queenan writes: “The reason I have written about A Prayer for the Dying so often is that, from the dyspeptic critic’s point of view, it is the most useful film ever made. It has bad accents, blind teenagers, lovable terrorists, overwrought crucifixion imagery, blustery priests, convivial whores, and Mickey Rourke. It is the one-size-fits-all bad movie. I love this movie more than life itself “)

Queenan: Mickey Rourke committed the one unforgivable sin, which is if God gives you talent, He doesn’t expect you to waste it. Mickey Rourke could’ve been a big star but he blew it. He started making movies like 9 1/2 Weeks and The Pope of Greenwich Village (not to mention Angel Heart, Johnny Handsome, and, of course, A Prayer for the Dying), where he’s playing cockroaches. Consistently playing dark, unattractive people is not the path to the top. I don’t have anything against Rourke personally, but I think he’s ridiculous.

What brought you to writing film criticism?

I got a call. Somebody from Rolling Stone called me and asked me to interview Sean Young. Then they asked me to interview Susan Sarandon. Then Movieline asked me to interview Keanu Reeves. I had been primarily writing for business magazines [like Forbes and The Wall Street Journal].

Is that where you started?

I got my start ghost-writing magazines for Ralph Ginsberg and worked for him for five years. Then I started getting stuff published in The Wall Street Journal and the New Republic, Spy, Barron’s, blah blah blah. It just kind of snowballed from there.

What do you think makes your writing about movies different from other critics?

I’m only interested in the finished product. I don’t talk to the people involved. I want to see Minority Report but I don’t want to talk to Tom Cruise, you know? Tom Cruise didn’t make Minority Report. I don’t want to talk to the guys who made the airplane — I want to talk about the airplane. [Movie industry people] don’t get that. The only thing they understand is you’re supposed to sell tickets.

And that’s the norm?

There’s an excessive amount of cowardice in the entertainment journalism community. (We zero in on the John Travolta-produced sci-fi epic, Battlefield Earth, based on Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard’s novel). With that movie, it’s like the critics all got together and said, “We’re all agreed on this, right? We’re going to stab Caesar.” But somebody’s got to stab Caesar first. Then, nobody wants to do it.

Or with something as atrocious as Gigli, critics will take the opportunity to jump on something if there’s already blood in the water but they’ll suck off any number of bad Will Smith or Chris Rock movies because, if they don’t, there might be repercussions. You might not get invited on the press junket next time.

In your article “Blarney Stoned” (which appears in Queenan’s collection of 1990s film criticism Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler), you write about the recent resurgence of Irish cinema, stating that the films coming out of Ireland are “either searing portrayals of the struggles of the IRA against the brutal heirs of Oliver Cromwell, or they are charming films filled with mirth and wit about wee, lovable canny Irish folk.” Is that still the case here in 2003?

It hasn’t dawned on America that Ireland has changed dramatically, that it’s not guys with donkeys and shillelaghs. Ireland is not this eight-world country anymore and I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people resented [Frank McCourt’s book and Alan Parker’s film] Angela’s Ashes. Just at the time there’s this Irish economic miracle, where people have a lot of money, are extremely educated and sophisticated and everything’s coming together, here comes this Yank [McCourt] with a book about how desperately awful things were in Ireland when he was growing up.

I think there will be young filmmakers from Ireland who will write movies that are not going to be about the IRA or the influence of the Civil War. It cannot always be about Michael Collins and the Black and Tans. It has to be about what’s happening in Ireland now, today. Is the country changing too fast? And what is the effect of so many Americans being there all the time?

That’s my problem with Ireland: there’s too many Americans. I only want to go there at certain times of the year. There’s no way I’m going to Ireland in the summer, because it’s crawling with people wearing Notre Dame jackets.

If I go to Ireland, I want to see Irish people, not faux Irish people.

What’s your perception of the authentic Irish people?

I think the Irish are very passionate, very intense, very clannish, but also very self-destructive. My dad was one of the classic self-pitying, wallowing in despair type of alcoholics. That’s what the alcohol thing is about with Irish people — self-pity.

I was in Ireland one time and this woman was showing me around — she was showing me all the new restaurants they’ve started in Cork City [where Queenan’s grandparents emigrated from] and she said, “I just wonder what Irish people would be like if they had any money.”

“They’d be Americans!” I replied. ♦

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