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in the Dark:
The Difference between Journalism and Criticism
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I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, and intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading your film critic before I read anyone else in your magazine but also consciously looking forward all week to reading him again. In my opinion his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.
–W. H. Auden
The year was 1944, the journal The Nation, and the critic James Agee but Auden's letter to the editor sums up much of the love-hate relationship felt by most readers of film criticism ever since. It points up the paradox that riddles all writing on film: there is no writing capable of being at one moment more exasperatingly infantile, personal, and polemical, and at another, more excitingly impassioned, probing, and free of the usual cant of academic criticism. And probably as much because of the one propensity as the other, film criticism has become the most successful cottage industry in the marketplace of ideas. Not even the lit. crit. business has grown faster, or prospered more in our inflated intellectual economy in the last ten or fifteen years. And yet, for a variety of reasons, no regular criticism has succeeded in remaining more damnably, more blessedly, more unpredictably, amateur in practice.
Which is to say, film writing has almost succeeded in resisting institutionalization. Perhaps its practitioners have been just too independent and principled to affiliate themselves with a particular editorial, commercial, or academic point of view. Or perhaps they are just too quirky and naive. But if film writing is refreshingly exempt from routine institutional controls on forms of discourse, it also pays the price of all unsupported, unsanctioned relationships. Scrupulousness honesty, and care are rare enough in any relationship between a writer and his readers; cuteness, casualness, and breeziness always beckon as easier ways to bring off an affair. If the short term and the immediate impression are all that count in a review, they are temptations almost impossible to resist.
If one wants proof of the ability of film criticism to avoid institutionalization, one has only to look at Time and Newsweek, the two most influential molders of general film opinion today. For anyone familiar with the Byzantine editorial attitudes and practices at either magazine, the pleasant surprise is that individual film critics "exist" at all. The editorial bureaucracies at both magazines labor to absorb the sounds of particular writers into the monotone of their controlling corporate styles and tones. And they are far from unsuccessful. One remembers that a Mr. James Agee was writing a weekly column of film drivel for Time, in the best brisk and punny Time-ese style, the same year Auden was praising his writing in The Nation.
Many of the reviews and reviewers at both Time and Newsweek are indistinguishable, of course. They pretty much blur together in the low drone of the standard news magazine brief review form. It is a structure pre-fabricated from a smattering of plot summary, a few descriptive superlatives (it's indifferent whether they praise or damn, just so they are superlatives), and a two or three sentence exhortation to the reader to attend or abstain–all expressed as chattily, flashily, and cleverly as possible.
But at Time Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss succeed in making themselves heard above that general hum–if only what they managed to articulate were more valuable. Both men have produced some fine critical pieces before their tenures at Time (so did Agee), yet there is little here to show it. Corliss's favorite rhetorical tactic is what in my college days used to be called the strategy of the "Overwhelming Equivocation." The goal is to allow the writer to have all things all possible ways, at the least possible discomfort to the potential reader. What would he get for this, his summary paragraph on Woody Allen?
Some moviegoers will see the film as life made into art.... Others will wonder if the movie isn't an elaborate mechanism of self-abuse...."Stardust Memories" has much to please the eye and ear.
Not bad, but anyone above a freshman might be expected to equivocate more cleverly. This use of subjunctives and indirect discourse is really quite primitive. Compare the following yoking of disparate materials together. It might work in an essay on metaphysical poetry:
In "Honeysuckle Rose" the romantic charge is as strong as any pairing since Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman–or at least since Kermit and Miss Piggy.
There's no point in multiplying examples. I only include the above quote because every time I read it I have to remind myself that it is not a parody of Corliss's ambidextrous exaggerations; it is Corliss himself. The writing is impervious to parody. To be vulnerable to mockery a writer must have at least a strain of conviction in him. Corliss's tongue is always too far in his cheek to be guilty of that.
Richard Schickel is a sadder and more interesting case, if only because he seems less capable of Corliss's self-protective cynicism. All Schickel can muster up in his reviews is his own disappointment and weariness with his weekly task. Admittedly, the four or five films a reviewer might see during a typical week are not among the most astonishing achievements of the human spirit; but that there are interesting moments in the most ordinary of films, and that occasionally quite extraordinary films get released, are things that a reader would never guess from Schickel's wan, discouraging prose. Corliss's brazen evasiveness is finally less saddening than Schickel's fainthearted praise. It is as if current films were all such con games for Schickel that his only function can be to give the prize to the superior con man: "Director Guy Hamilton has a gift for moving this sort of nonsense right along." The most excited he can get about a particular film is that one movie is "jolly," another "a mature exercise in style," a third has a "pleasant Iyricism," and another is "an amiable entertainment"; he works up as much passion as if he were writing about a pet show.
Of course the value of making one's praise indistinguishable from one's pan is that it absolves the reviewer from the burdensome analysis of his own dissatisfactions. After a few token objections to "Hopscotch," Schickel can finesse the rest of the review with a piece of cinema-weary double-talk like the following: "Still Matthau is Matthau . . . he does what a star must do: he creates the illusion that this film is better than it is. He also makes it look easy."
One is tempted to accuse him as he accuses the director of "Scum": "This is just another use of a genre that movie makers love because it is an easy one in which to make vaguely anti-authoritarian gestures without straining very hard for originality or for fine moral discriminations."
That is exactly what film reviewing is for Schickel. His dissatisfaction with almost everything he reviews is meant to assure us of his intelligence and discrimination; his superiority to the films he discusses saves him the bother of having to demonstrate either.
Maybe it is Time's high-toned CINEMA rubric that afflicts Corliss with such fear of interpretation and Schickel with such infinite resignation; but for whatever reason, Newsweek's two regular MOVIE reviewers bring a happy liveliness to their work almost entirely lacking in Time. Unfortunately, one of them, Jack Kroll, compromises any capacity for discrimination by blending People Magazine-style celebrity interviews with his regular film reviews. The result is a conflict of interest: When a review of "Ordinary People" metamorphoses halfway down the second column into an interview with director Robert Redford, one doesn't need to read any further to know that no hard analysis of the film will ensue. Kroll is one of the three or four most frequently quoted reviewers in film advertising–always a dubious distinction–and it should come as no real surprise that a writer so gushy and quotable should see no difference between film reviewing and Hollywood hagiography.
One begins to wonder if the very form of the typical newsmagazine review dooms its authors to vapidity. The reviewer's "instant analysis" can never express the least doubt or puzzlement. It is forced to be ahistorical, to avoid all film terminology, however basic; and it is entirely self-contained, preventing any possibility of a series of individual reviews in which to conduct a longer, more complex argument. It is compelled above all else to be clever and perky. One begins to wonder if anyone could successfully pull off this task when along comes David Ansen of Newsweek to prove that neither the mediocrity of the average film nor the constraints of the weekly review format are responsible for the failures of Schickel, Corliss, Kroll, and company.
Compare Kroll's (eminently quotable) substitutions of adjectives for thought with Ansen's measured syntax, carefully engaged in questioning, testing, and qualifying received categories:
"Willie and Phil" is a film largely devoid of ideas (unlike "Jules and Jim"); like his characters, Mazursky puts more stock in feelings. Here the satirist of "Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice" has given way to the celebrant.
But he hasn't lost his sense of humor or his uncanny ability to take the most familiar ethnic stereotype and give it a twist that makes it fresh. "Willie and Phil" is crammed with wonderful details ....
But it is on the shoulders of Ontkean, Sharkey and Kidder that the film stands or falls. Of the three, Ontkean is the most conventionally likable, the most glamorous–yet his Willie, the narcissist, is the one whose vagaries try our patience the most. Kidder, with that slight feral curl to her lip, and Sharkey, a furiously aggressive actor, don't conform to traditional romantic expectations. Still, Sharkey's prickly energy becomes comically endearing, and Kidder's performance sneaks up on you, burrowing deeper as it goes.
Though the final few sentences show that Ansen hasn't yet succeeded in freeing himself from certain annoying metaphoric mannerisms that give more evidence of cinematic fancy than imagination, until the continuously qualified progress of this analysis testifies to a care, tact, and respect for the object of his commentary
But Ansen isn't good reading on only so-called serious films. Even when he is writing about Blake Edwards's "10," a film that invites dismissive noises from the Cinema-as-Art crowd, Ansen can use his review to comment on the surprising earnestness of its comic plot, and even dare to argue its superiority to higher-class soap operas like "Loving Couples." And when reviewing the disastrous uncut version of Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," about which most other reviewers are merely abusive, Ansen attempts to understand some of the reasons behind Cimino's failure, and to locate telltale signs of his present weakness in his previous successes. In short, in this world of once a week, five hundred words or less flash and trash, Ansen with his prose of connections, discriminations, and measurements, is single-handedly re-inventing the possibilities of the form.
To turn from the ability to influence the box office of a film already in general distribution to the ability to affect whether a film will get a general distribution, it is no exaggeration to call the New York Times's film pages the most powerful and decisive critical voice in the country. Not only is the Times the first place many small budget studio films get reviewed, but it is almost the only organ of criticism that can give any review at all to most of the museum and cinema society festivals (featuring independent or foreign productions) that take place in New York. All this makes Vincent Canby, the chief priest of this critical Delphi, a man to be reckoned with. As first-string critic at the Times for the past decade Canby has the same quasi-official status in the world of film as his colleague James Reston has in affairs of state–not merely reporting and evaluating, but helping to create and shape events. It might be flattering to Canby if the analogy continued beyond the resemblance, but the James Reston of film criticism is afflicted with a moral amorphousness and intellectual incoherence that could never pass muster in the op-ed column of his colleague.
In the brief installments of his daily film reviews and Sunday "Film View" columns, Canby's writing seems so innocuous and cryptic that it is hard to form any distinct impression of it at all. At first, among the hysteria and tendentiousness of so much other writing on film, Canby passes for the one sane, sociable soul. But it is only after sitting down to breakfast with him over a year or two that a disturbing pattern begins to emerge in this fog of mild agreeability. One is first struck by how much less there is to his reviews than meets the eye, then by the true deviousness of his rhetorical strategies, and finally, by how masterfully coy, smug, and irresponsible this most privileged of critics can be.
It isn't only that half of his film comments are of the "it tingles the spine" and "tears the screen to bits" variety (I wish I were making these phrases up, but both come from the same review of "Nashville"), but Canby's problem is larger than a merely fashionable critical impressionism. He is the master of a Big Think critical prose that conveniently evaporates exactly at the points where it is about to commit itself to something. Follow, if you can, the course of this sentence from a review of "Amarcord": "'Amarcord' has close associations with Mr. Fellini's last two films, 'The Clowns' and 'Roma,' both memoirs of a sort...." One is prepared for an exploration of Fellini's fascinating senses of biographical and cinematic time; one is perhaps prepared for an even more ambitious series of speculations about the relation of personal, cultural, and even geological memory in Fellini's films; but the one thing one is not prepared for is Canby's convenient conclusion to his sentence: ". . . but the likeness turns out to be superficial on closer inspection." It is a "closer inspection" that never takes place. This is not a sentence that belongs to a film review, it is something one says over drinks at a party, as a form of one-upmanship and chit-chat. The speaker wants credit for asserting something which he is not only incapable of defending, but, when challenged, claims the prerogative to unsay. In review after review Canby writes and then unwrites himself like this, getting full credit for all possible perceptions and every mutually exclusive attitude.
Sometimes Canby's unwriting of himself can be quite clever, as when he praises "The Godfather" as "a superb Hollywood movie," which, in case we don't get the force of these two quite different adjectives, is explained in the last sentence of the review, when he calls the film "one of the most brutal and moving [signs of waffling already creeping in] chronicles of American life ever designed [and watch what happens here] within the limits of popular entertainment."
Canby has boasted that copy editors keep their hands off his stuff, and so thoroughly does he appear to have everyone around him buffaloed, that one wonders if anyone at all reads his copy before it is printed in "the newspaper of record." Certainly a competent editor couldn't have thought anything was actually being said in impressionistic mumbo jumbo like the following on Lina Wertmuller:
I don't want particularly to defend "Seven Beauties" here. Though it's a film I admire tremendously, I do not think that one of its faults is not that it has a message, but that it has too many. They aren't messages, really, they are associations that are made with the Wertmuller material, and sometimes they are quite contradictory. They are disorienting . . . though I'm not sure that says as much about the movie as about me, about my wishes, needs, desires to look beyond the immediate image, and most of the time when you do look there's nothing to see.
Who is being "contradictory" and "disorienting" here? This is a writer so complacently awash in the sea of his own exquisite sensibility, and so obviously fond of his ruminations, that it doesn't matter to him what he says or fails to say. The reversals and qualifications in David Ansen's writing are an attempt at sorting and measuring, at finding adequate verbal forms for a largely non-verbal experience; but Canby's syntactic conundrums simply communicate his love of riddles, his private delight at the dizzying intellectual heights to which paradox, ambiguity, and imprecision can transport him.
One of his most serviceable sorts of paradoxes is that dreary old "form" versus "content' antithesis. So many films and performances are praised not for "what the film (or performance) does, but for how it does it," that when Canby reverses the formulation in an evaluation of Robert De Niro's acting in "Taxi Driver"–"a performance that is effective as much for what Mr. De Niro does, as for how he does it" one hardly pauses to ask might it be a misprint or a slip of the pen. How could it possibly matter? Once one has graduated from Method Acting 101, what's the difference between what an actor does, and how he does it?
It would be easier to overlook these incoherencies and lapses of logic if Canby the neo-Platonist hadn't projected his own intellectual untidiness into an aesthetic ideal. He translates his own penchant for disjointed, incoherent critical impressionism into a general aesthetic theory that, not unexpectedly, exalts disjointed, incoherent cinematic impressionism, and calls the whole thing "The New Movie." Although "The New Movie" is mentioned, or alluded to, in dozens of reviews it's not surprising that "The New Movie" is described, defined, or analyzed no more carefully than anything else in his columns. The following passage, from a piece five or so years ago, is to my knowledge his most extended attempt at articulation. In this hodgepodge of over-simplifications, half-truths, and gnomic nonsense (all apparently meant to be insulated from criticism by the jokiness of Canby's tone), are all the inconsistencies, incoherencies, and hollow rhetorical flourishes that run through the analyses of individual films:
Today's movies–not all of today's movies, just a tiny but important minority of today's movies–are hard on people who were brought up knowing that movies were supposed to be fun because they were a lesser form of literature that could be understood even if one didn't know how to read.
In pre-television days one went to the movies as a kind of reward, as a means to relax, having finished real, serious work, including all sorts of difficult, often boring, required reading. Movies were to be perceived in predictable ways. One could be sure that when one entered a dark, popcorn-scented movie house there was little chance of being hit with Pascal's "Pensees." What ideas movies had were spelled out in pictures, which guaranteed they would never be very complex. Movies had beginnings, middles and endings, and unhappy endings were just as upbeat as the happy ones. Heroes never died in vain. In movies, life had shape.
Today's movies are different. They are not necessarily better, but they are decidedly different and that difference is alienating a lot of moviegoers who want movies to keep their old place. There is nothing worse than an uppity movie.... The New Movie is not new, of course. It's been around for years, regularly since the early 1960's....
New Movies can't be read like books or road maps. The New Movie talks back to our prejudices without our knowing it.
As soon as one tries to apply such a formulation to "old fashioned" directors like Murnau, Dreyer, Von Sternberg, Renoir, and DeSica, the fatuousness of the whole game becomes apparent. "The New Movie" is simply whatever Canby needs it to be at the moment, a stick of incense he can burn whenever his favorite reductive formulations– this movie is "about," "says," or "tells us"–predictably fail him for the umpteenth time.
It's not really surprising that vagueness and incoherence should become such virtues for a writer for whom the virtues of films are so vague and incoherent. Consider the raised dots that punctuate the above quotation, and about half the pieces Canby writes. They are but an admission of Canby's unwillingness (or inability) to sustain a coherent, continued analysis for even the length of his column. Perhaps he thinks his reviews are imitating the fragmented "New Movie" he is forever heralding and never defining. But it is more likely that Canby simply cares so little about a sustained analysis that he sees nothing peculiar in fragmenting even something as fragmentary as one of his reviews. But the point is, of course, Canby's aesthetics notwithstanding, that the "what" of a critic's performance is never separable from the "how."
I want to pass more briefly over three critics for smaller publications: John Simon at The National Review, Robert Hatch at The Nation, and David Denby at New York Magazine.
Simon is the Polonius of film criticism, apparently able to sit through the dazzling human complexity that the experience of even an average film provides, and emerge absolutely untouched and unscathed, still clutching the morality play meanings with which he entered. It is no accident that Shakespeare made his most proficient moralist also his coldest, most literal-minded character. Like Polonius, Simon's most amazing skill is his ability to avoid an imaginative or emotional experience even when it is thrust upon him, and like Shakespeare's supreme literalist, he is actually not bad (and is certainly quite comfortable) when dealing with matters of fact, and can write an occasionally interesting dissection of a documentary or an historical drama. But put him up against an imaginative experience that requires some surrender of his own categories, some vulnerability to human complexities that defy moralization, and all he can do is find fault with some illogic or inconsistency in the plot, some inaccuracy in the costumes, sets, or script. If human relationships and meanings were generated out of facts and events as simply and straightforwardly as Simon would have them, there would be no Hamlets and Shakespeares, no films, and none of the mysteries and confusions in our lives that keep us sitting through them.
If Simon can't let go of his judgments and beliefs about the "real world" long enough to be affected by the imaginative world of a film, Robert Hatch puts up no resistance at all. Every film sweeps him away and dissolves him in a sea of impressions and associations. Of the opening of "Kagemusha," he writes:
Looking at the three [men] seated there, I thought, "porcelain" and as the movie progressed I fancied myself in a museum collection of Japanese ceramics, in the hundreds, sprung from their cases and swirling around me in a tumultuous masque.
Simon refuses to allow a film's style to bring into existence a reality at odds with his sternly pragmatic one, Hatch apparently never even asks that a film have anything at all to do with his experience of life. As the metaphors in this quotation suggest, films carry us gloriously away from the messes of life, into a land of reverie, dreams, and Art with a capital A. And the inevitable result is the paralysis of any capacity for judgment or discrimination in the critic. How can one judge a daydream? Film becomes essentially escapist, and consequently frivolous. It is an art of "as if," and Hatch's tone becomes equally "as if," until his reviews read like exercises in the subjunctive. Facts, certainties, and realities disappear in a swirl of possibilities and suppositions: "It is said to be...." "I doubt that it...." "It is possible that...." Hatch is forced into the ultimate tonal absurdity when, faced with a film he really wants to dislike ("Dressed to Kill," in this case) he is only able to "deplore its jolly attitude toward mad killers." Even Simon's wooden headshakings and homilies seem preferable to this moral Epicureanism.
After being forced to choose between sermons and flights of fancy, it is positively exhilarating to come upon David Denby who is able to turn his considerable analytical powers on the immense complexities of the experience of watching a film. Denby joined New York not long ago with the departure of Molly Haskell. Like David Ansen at Newsweek (another Boston-trained critic) he realizes that the last thing a reader needs or wants is one more regurgitation of the characters, plot, and themes of the latest Altman, Coppola, or Allen.
Denby's chief shortcoming is that he at times seems a little too eager to be sufficiently light, bright, and gay, and a bit too fond of Kaelian metaphoric pyrotechnics even when they are at the expense of the film he is describing. But these things acknowledged, there is no critic now writing who is better at discussing all of a film–its plot, characters, politics, aesthetics, editing, photography, and sound track–not as a historical or moral document as Simon might have it, nor as a platform for free associations and frissons ý la Hatch, but as a fiction, a man-made thing, a humanly arranged event. On "Coal Miner's Daughter," Kubrick's "The Shining," Redford's "Ordinary People," Allen's "Stardust Memories," and others, Denby is exemplary. While Hatch and Simon are busy making facile connections between some superficial event in a film and a particular social fact or psychological association, Denby describes and evaluates the deep structures that make a film's meanings possible, interesting, or compelling. While Simon and Hatch are assuming the simplest imaginable correspondences between the "intentions" of directors, performers, and technicians, and their finished products, Denby is redefining the nature of intentionality in an art as complex as film. He is tracing out the connections between the deeper structures of significance and the contributions of particular workers, locating their "intentions" not behind, anterior to, or outside of the film, but as they are built into the cinematic arrangements of every work. There is no more impressive example of the proper function of criticism.
I've saved the three most senior, crotchety, and controversial critics for last. Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Stanley Kauffman are arguably the three most influential critics writing on film today because they are the writers other writers read. Of the three, Kael of The New Yorker is indisputably both the best known and the most controversial. In Kael's writing, objects are taken to pieces, and personalities are dispersed not by virtue of some stylistic trick or sloppiness, but as part of a radical redefinition of cinematic syntax and meaning. Kael is a critic in the tradition of the Susan Sontag who wrote in "Against Interpretation":
It may be that Cocteau in "The Blood of a Poet" and in "Orpheus" wanted the elaborate readings which have been given these films, in terms of Freudian symbolism and social critique. But the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their "meanings." Indeed it is precisely to the extent that . . . Cocteau's films do suggest these meanings that they are defective, false, contrived, lacking in conviction.
From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed "Last Year at Marienbad" to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations. But the temptation to interpret "Marienbad" should be resisted. What matters in "Marienbad" is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of its images....
Again, Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the empty street in "The Silence" as a phallic symbol. But if he did it was a foolish thought.... Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.
No one has made more of a career of "responding to what is there on the screen" than Kael. Her criticism is a fulfillment of Sontag's effort to bypass the normal structures of interpretation by which we assimilate a work of art to our everyday systems of explanation, and rob it of its peculiar felt force. When Emerson wrote: "An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author," he was sketching the possibilities of such a criticism. Kael, writing on the frayed edges of a great tradition extending from Emerson to Stevens, is a kind of common man's advocate for the uninterpretable experience of the sublime in art. Her effort is precisely to locate in films the moments of energy, surprise, shock, or tension more rudimentary and essential than any of the systems of history and culture by which we normally understand them.
Kael subscribes to a snap, crackle, and pop brand of criticism. A film is atomized into a succession of instants and local excitements–the experience becomes a sequence of primordial psychic zaps, pows, and whams. The point in to immerse yourself in the sensory flow prior to thought, for the critic to become a conduit of "uninterpreted," pre-cognitive experience. That is why Kael takes characters" apart, anatomizing them into a collection of gestures, glances, postures or even pieces of costuming anterior to psychology, personality, and social relations. Let the opening paragraph of her review of "Honeysuckle Rose" stand for all; the metaphors are almost a literal exercise in anatomy:
In "Honeysuckle Rose" Dyan Cannon is a curvy cartoon–a sex kitten become a full blown tigress. Her hair is a great tawney mop, so teased and tangled that a comb would have to declare war to get through it; her blouse is filled to capacity, and her jeans are about to split. She has never looked better.
To the extent that a performance is constituted out of just such a collection of appearances, stances, and looks, there is no more breathless describer of its mysterious energies. Kael's astonishment at "Richard Pryor–Live in Concert" ("When we watch this film, we can't account for Pryor's gift, and everything he does seems to be for the first time") is typical of her delight and wonder at the power of any performance–any such assembly of gestures, postures, and stances by director, actor, or technician–to move her.
She is sometimes called an "impressionistic" critic, but there is no writing further from Hatch's chronicle of the adventures of a soul among the masterpieces. The "impressions" Kael directs our attention toward are events and details, however minute and fleeting, that are actually up there on the screen, not Hatch's flight of free associations away from it. There is no sharper eye for detail, and no eye quicker to test the details of each particular performance against all previous film performances. What Kael's highbrow critics miss when they call her allusions or metaphors unscholarly or sloppy is that there is more relevant film history and scholarship in three or four of her flashy references than in a dozen film journal footnotes.
All of which goes to show why in her chosen arena there is probably no critic now writing who can better describe those moments in a film when there is more going on than can be reduced to the systems of explanation on which most other critics rely to get them safely through a film and a review. While other reviewers are busy tidying up the experience of a film into neat metaphorical, psychological, or sociological patterns–a prelude, invariably, to an argument in favor of, or against, the streamlined experience which they've concocted–Kael's prose echo-chamber of comparisons, allusions, and metaphors is engaged instead in opening up new, free-floating possibilities of response and reaction. A film becomes a succession of energetic dispersions, eccentricities, and excitements that conventional thematic and metaphoric glosses only gloss over.
Yet having acknowledged her achievement, one still must admit the extraordinary blind spots in her vision of film. If she exposes us to the unregimented, even irresponsible energies of personal performances, it is at the expense of leaving out an awful lot else. In fact, what seems left out of her meticulous anatomy of gestures, glances, and looks, her aesthetic of frissions, shocks, and visions, is simply all the rest of life. Kael's attention to the isolated movements, shots, or postures that define a performance necessarily isolates it from the social, political, and personal contexts that surround and sustain it. Meaning drops away. Emotion (at least any emotion more complex than an orgasmic thrill or chill) disappears–which is why Kael is ultimately our greatest connoisseur of junk, trash, and flash–of junky movies, trashy experiences, and the flashy effects in them. Everything that distinguishes life from a roller coaster ride or a junk-food pig out disappears.
In the conclusion of "Against Interpretation" Sontag called for an "erotics of art." In Kael, her wish has been granted. Her criticism is an illustration of what such a critical program might amount to. But the question is whether any "erotics" is a sufficient conceptual framework for our experience in or out of a movie theater. Surely, we also need a social psychology of art, a politics of art, and a natural history of art. One reviewer of Kael's most recent collection of essays aptly described her analyses of the films she most admires as "all peaks and no valleys." No one is her equal in pointing out "peaks" of interest and excitement in our experience of a film, but isn't our emotional and intellectual experience impoverished when we turn it into a series of peaks? Shouldn't criticism (like film) provide a geography and geology of the rest of life as well? In fact, don't the peaks matter only after we have established the contexts that make them possible, traced their locations in relation to the valleys and plains of the rest of experience sketched out the infrequency of vision in relation to the rest of our lives and all our assertively un-visionary moments? Kael is frequently praised as a great stylist, but doesn't a great writing style have something to do with being deeply insightful about the subject you are dealing with? For those who say this, it's as if their appreciation of Kael's style is as detached from the actual meaning (or lack of meaning) of her words, as her own appreciation of cinematic style is detached from the meaning (or lack of meaning) of the films she writes about. For it's an undeniable fact that, for more than thirty years, with her taste for trash and flash, Kael has been wrong, wrong, wrong about what films matter and what don't. In the end, it's not too much to say that she ultimately reveals the fraudulence of Sontag's critical stance. On the evidence of Kael's work, criticism without interpretation reveals itself to be clinically brain-dead.
It would be hard to think of a critical temperament more opposite to Pauline Kael's than Stanley Kauffman's. While Kael trades on her capacities of conspicuous response, her enthusiasms and excitements, Kauffman does the opposite. He seems at times almost afraid to like a film. A poll of theatre owners a few years ago voted him the second hardest critic in America to please–second only to John Simon. Where Kael can be enthusiastic to the point of rhapsody and often receptive past the point of silliness, Kauffmann is crusty, stodgy sternly unimpressible, and doggedly negative about most films. Yet it is precisely Kauffman's common-sensical stolidness that makes him most valuable as a critic. He is absolutely unintimidated by trends, word of mouth, or the cinematic preciousness, stylishness, and cleverness that carry the day in so many other reviews.
Kauffman (who reviews for The New Republic, a journal of political opinion) represents a critical sensibility so different from the artistic connoisseurship of Kael at The New Yorker, that one is again forced to consider the issue of institutional controls on individual discourse, controls that are only more obvious in magazines like Time and Newsweek. If one can imagine a moralist like Kauffmann–or Simon–writing for The New Yorker, it is almost impossible to imagine The New Republic sanctioning and encouraging Kael's cascade of impressions. So it is doubly instructive to compare Kauffman's writing with that of another New Yorker critic, Penelope Gilliatt, who until recently alternated reviewing duties with Kael. Gilliat's writing is in many respects indistinguishable from Kael's, and neither could be less like Kauffman's. Though the Three Mile Island fiasco made "The China Syndrome" seem more important than it would otherwise have been, both Gilliatt and Kauffmann wrote reviews of it before it became a current events newsreel, and the differences are revealing. For the first half of her piece, Gilliatt traces a pattern of "hecticness" in the film, with an entertaining series of apercus about particular scenes or moments within it:
Hecticness may be one of the great banes of the Western world. Repose is rarely to be found.... Hecticness is one of the themes of James Bridges' "The China Syndrome." The woman star, Jane Fonda, is Kimberly Wells, with red-dyed hair that streams down her back, and looking ravaged by her life as a "soft" TV commentator.... The film is rightly cluttered with TV jargon and rush. No one has any time to pay heed . . . we see to what trivial pressures her enacted ease is subjected. Technicians and TV administrators are yelling commands about haste at her all the time. Jane Fonda's performance is also about the non-stop breeziness forced on our public commentators.
It is well to remember that this is an aggressively political, even polemical film, because Gilliatt's repetitions and variations on the theme of "hecticness," the "non-stop breeziness" of her own analysis (like Kael's in so many of her reviews), succeed in turning it into a sort of still life. By extracting each of the events and scenes she notices from its political, social, and dramatic background, she freezes them into a static pattern of internal tensions. Each moment becomes somehow implicit in, or a repetition of, another moment, and are all made to co-exist in the breathless present of her review. But it is impossible even for this art-for-art's-sake writer entirely to aestheticize "China Syndrome"–politics, society, and the world outside the movie theatre are let in at the very end of the review. But note the very special way they are brought into existence:
The head of the nuclear power plant is a true bull-necked capitalist, only counting the billions of dollars that would go down the drain if his plant were idle. Danger be damned he thinks. "The China Syndrome" is a fine film concerned with the harm being done to America by money-grubbing interests that fail to look very far.
Is it accidental that it is only another tableau-vivant? Who is this power-plant executive anyway? A bit character actor in a Hollywood genre film. That "money-grubbing, bull-necked capitalist" muttering "Danger be damned," while "billions go down the drain," never lived in our world, not for a minute. He's straight out of Metropolis or Modern Times. We are back in a "scene" from a film, watching a "performance" after all.
What makes Kauffmann interesting is that even though his sensitivities overlap with Gilliatt's and Kael's in some respects, he ultimately reacts against the aestheticism they (and he) are susceptible to. The first two sentences of his review are revealing and characteristic of his whole critical endeavor:
A smashing thriller–the most exciting thriller I've seen since "Z." Grave questions come along after it, but not until the excitement calms down, which takes a while.
That second sentence, with its retreat from the breathless enthrallment of the first, is a characteristic gesture for this cautious, conservative, and self-scrutinizing critic.
But before Kauffmann takes up his second thoughts, he gives full value to his initial excitement. Jazz up his next few paragraphs with a few more metaphors and you might be reading Kael on DePalma:
What's particularly good about the picture's rhythm is that it doesn't follow the usual pattern of suspense films: a fast start followed by a lull (you know, an opening murder, then long passages of fill in), with alternating splotches of action and drags of recovery until the final whoop-up. "Syndrome" starts tight and keeps tight even before the material is particularly tense. (The innate pressures of television broadcasting help it here.) So as the material itself gets more hair-raising, the editing doesn't seem to be accelerating. The whole picture is like a speeding train on which events get more gripping as it speeds along.
The point Kauffmann is making about the pace and rhythm of the film is, in fact, quite similar to what Gilliatt called its "hecticness." But with the next sentence Kauffmann turns his glance in a direction Gilliatt, Kael, Hatch, or another critic of aesthetic thrills and pleasures never would:
But. After it's all over and the pulse begins to subside–which takes time–the worry comes.... The question here is villainy, not error.... If the film had only underscored the constant possibility of human error in nuclear plants, it would have done a service. But "Syndrome" also casts its power executives as heavies in a James Bond flick.... Shortsightedness, stupidity, and error are frightening enough possibilities in such powerful men. But to show nuclear executives as so money mad that they knowingly risk explosion to make money, that they hire thugs to help them–all this would take some proving in order to clear the picture of the charge of irresponsibility.
The issue here is not whether power company executives are really "bull-necked capitalists," or "short-sighted, stupid, and fallible." The issue is whether one stays within the boundaries of the frame, and accepts the conventions of a film at their own estimation, or holds oneself somewhere outside the frame with Kauffmann, and requires that the film enter into dialogue with recognizable and significant social, psychological, and political forms outside itself. Kauffmann indeed beings by giving full value to the melodramatic ingenuity and sensuous immediacy of the film before him. This is the point to which Simon never gets, and the point at which Hatch, Kael, and Gilliatt stop. But Kauffmann goes on–to test and measure the experience in which he has been immersed; to express his reservations about the way all melodrama simplifies, distorts, and falsifies; to express doubts about how a particular film can presume to exonerate itself from the fiction-mongering it pretends to be exposing in others. In his final sentence he sums up his disturbing doubleness of vision: "Its very effectiveness in sheer filmic terms makes it all the more worrisome." The interest of all of his best criticism is Kauffman's unstable oscillation between the "sheer filmic" forms and terms within a movie, and his allegiance to the forms and terms of experience outside film.
Few critics more repeatedly (and at times exasperatingly) resist the "filmic" in films in order to raise literal questions about meaning, plot, and character. "Gorgeousness," "prettiness," "cleverness," and "artiness," far from being terms of appreciation in Kauffman's vocabulary, are his ultimate condemnations. To say a film (a DePalma, or a Hitchcock) is a stylistic tour de force is, for Kauffmann, to damn it once and for all to the first circle of irresponsibility. If Kauffmann is often insufficiently "cinematic" in his criticism, repeatedly moving outside the frame of a scene to raise social or psychological questions, it is only because he realizes that the forms of cinematic experience matter only insofar as they communicate with the forms of extra-cinematic experience. In a branch of criticism where stylistic brilliance or technical virtuosity are so often celebrated as ends in themselves, he anxiously emphasizes the responsibilities of style, and the irresponsibility of the merely stylish. As his comments on "China Syndrome" suggest, Kauffmann (like Denby) realizes that every style (however "brilliant," "clever," or "exciting") is at the same time a trap, a limitation, a necessary betrayal or lie about experience especially the eminently portable, disposable, and deployable styles of so many fashionable cinematic tours de force.
Kauffman's greatest strength is precisely his precarious balance between responsiveness to the sheer cinematic forms on the screen and the forms of psychology and society outside the theatre. His most severe limitation is that too often the balance seems to tip toward the latter. At times he seems almost willfully to resist the very energies of the medium to which he is supposedly devoted. A deeper paradox of Kauffman's standards is that a too demanding criterion of cinematic responsibility and "realism" can, oddly enough, become another more subtle form of cinematic aestheticism. Realism is after all only another style; and the quest for the well-made screen-play and the well-acted role, like the Pre-Raphaelites' artistic quest for innocence, can itself become an insidious kind of artsiness. Sometimes, as Kauffmann is busily analyzing the minutest details of the lighting, blocking, and acting of a particular scene, all supposedly in the interests of arguing for or against its fidelity to life, it is possible to ask whether well-made characters, plots, and dramas haven't become ends in themselves, whether Kauffmann, the self-proclaimed enemy of cinematic rhetoric and manipulation, isn't at these moments only the slave of the form of rhetorical manipulation we call realism. If aestheticism is the narrowing of one's range of response and appreciation, then certainly Kauffman's repudiation of so many kinds of cinematic stylization and artfulness becomes at times its own form of aestheticism.
Having said this, it must be admitted that he brilliantly uses his realistic bias, his interest in society and politics in films, to describe the social and political forces that really produce the films we see. While other critics are spot-lighting a particular star or director as if films really were made the way fan magazines describe them, Kauffmann keeps reminding us of the much less romantic realities of modern film production. Few critics are better at tracing and teasing out the practical compromises that go into the final product, the necessary conflicts and different contributions of the actors, writers, directors, and technicians who make a film possible.
Kauffmann at times forces films to shoulder inordinate burdens of responsibility and significance, but there is no critic correspondingly harder on himself and his own writing. He is a meticulously, even depressingly, careful writer at the furthest remove from Kael's gush of excitement and exhortation, a critic laboring under the burden of his own self-appointed responsibilities. To follow his weekly pieces in The New Republic is to watch Kauffmann continuously watching himself, measuring his passions, correcting, extending, reassessing, weighing his own judgments as severely as he weighs the films he watches.
If he is overly impatient with the frivolous, too testy about the slightest manifestation of artiness, a little too anxious in his search for masterpieces, it is only because he takes movies too seriously ever to allow them to become only occasions of energy, entertainment, or escapism. For all his crusty, occasional tartness of manner, his literal-mindedness about plots and characterizations, his parochialism of response, there are very few critics with such an exalted sense of the potential importance of film. While Kael and all too many other critics read like people who live in order to go to the movies, Kauffmann never allows up to forget that he goes to the movies in order to live.
Whatever their other differences, Kael and Kauffmann share an urgency (some would say a stridency) about films to which it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than the chatty, playfully punning geniality of Andrew Sarris at the Village Voice. If Kael is the enraptured chronicler of the visionary "eye" temporarily liberated from the limitations of time, society, and personality, Sarris is the humane celebrator of the sovereignty and power of the thoroughly personal "I." Sarris himself recently defined the difference between his sensibility and Kael's by contrasting a scene he liked in the cinematic soap opera, "Ordinary People," with Brian DePalma's exercise in camp horror in "Dressed to Kill," which Kael had praised extravagantly: "There is more genuine horror in [Mary Tyler Moore's dropping her son's French toast down the garbage disposal,] than in all the bloodletting of 'Dressed to Kill.'"
His differences with Kael go back a long way. They both made their reputations in the early 1960s by a polemical spat over Sarris' application of the French politique des auteurs to Hollywood studio films. There are significant practical and theoretical problems with Sarris' position, and Kael masterfully pointed some of them out to him in their debate, but their differences over auteurism are really beside the point. What Kael (and most of Sarris's other critics) failed to realize was that Sarris wasn't even remotely interested in auteurism as a coherent and defensible intellectual position. Though, as a fairly ambitious and inexperienced young reviewer, Sarris may have chosen to wrap himself in the protective mantle of an esoteric, transatlantic intellectual movement, the sheer ineptness of most of his replies to Kael's objections showed his utter ignorance of, and indifference to, most of the theoretical underpinnings of French auteurism. And his classic application of auteurism to Hollywood movies in his first book, The American Cinema, devotes hardly a page to the theory and philosophy behind the whole project. Auteurism didn't come to Sarris from France, or as a result of meditations on the aesthetics of film, it happened (as he explained in his introduction to The American Cinema) as he walked up the aisle of a movie theatre: " 'That was a good movie,' the critic observes. 'Who directed it?' When the same answer is given again and again, a pattern of performance emerges." Auteurism was Sarris's way to legitimize his love for a group of studio directors–from Welles, Hitchcock, and Lubitsch, on down to men like Preston Sturges, Don Siegel, and Douglas Sirk who were regarded by other critics as studio hacks. What Sarris liked was nothing more complicated than their abilities to make their personalities felt in a film. The "pattern of performance" Sarris traces in the careers of 200 directors in The American Cinema is simply Sarris's unsophisticated celebration of the recognizability of the styles, the signatures, and the temperaments of these directors.
Nothing fascinated Sarris more then, or motivates more of his writing now, than this faith in the little man making his way against alien styles. Alfred Hitchcock's icy wit, John Ford's gruff sentimentality, Jimmy Stewart's "stone faced morbidity" are all evidences of the power of personality to survive, even in the slightest and most quirky manifestations, against the great artistic levelers of our time–the homogenizing and impersonalizing pressures of the genre film, the commercial market, and the studio production system.
It's not surprising, then, that Sarris should be weakest on those films which most interested Kauffmann–films that attempt to be more (or less) than personal documents, films that aspire to significance, generality, and impersonality. In The American Cinema Sarris even invented a special category (called "Strained Seriousness") within which to gather (and dismiss) films that made such attempts. Likewise, Kael and Sarris also are at odds over the issue, Sarris being almost indifferent to the sort of cool transcendence of personality in a performance that mesmerizes Kael. So fascinated is she by just the sort of meticulous calculation and mastery of gesture that leaves personality behind that she can actually criticize Bette Midler for "losing her cool" at the end of a show and getting "personal." While hardly anything leaves Sarris more bored and irritated than a stylistic tour de force, a cinematic event that exempts itself from the continuous adjustments and by-play of a thoroughly personal relationship, whether of characters to each other, of actors to a script, or of a director toward his actors. In fact no word has more harrowing connotations for Sarris than Kael's favorite adjective of praise: for Sarris, Eisenstein is "cool," and Murnau fortunately is not; DePalma is "cool," and Cassavetes fortunately is not; Kael is "cool" and he deliberately is not.
It's probably not coincidental that Sarris's own position at the Village Voice has significant parallels with that of the studio directors in whom he is most interested. In a characteristically anecdotal review of "Hopscotch," he compared his journalistic situation with that of the film's central character, a man who asserts the power of his personality against the bureaucracy of the CIA:
Kendig is a middle-aged man demoted in his profession because he is too much of an individualist to fit into an impersonal system. I can think of few middle-aged men in America who can't identify with [him]. In my own case I started working here at the Voice as a helper in a Mom-and-Pop shop, and I am now a cog in a conglomerate.
But, of course, what an anecdotal excursion like this proves, is that the one thing Sarris will never allow himself to become is "a cog in a conglomerate." In an important sense, Sarris, asserting the power of his individual voice in the Village Voice, has always been fighting the same struggle as the filmmakers he most admires, a struggle to assert the strength of his self against all the person-leveling tendencies of an institution. In the final reckoning, Sarris's promotion of auteurism, and his personalized approach to film criticism are one–one song of praise and faith in the potency and importance of the human personality.
Sarris's strengths are inseparable from his weaknesses. His charming and chatty style, his anecdotally autobiographical approach, and above all his thoroughly humane view of films, define both the special sensitivities of his criticism and its ultimate shortcomings. His writing, even about the films he most admires, is maddeningly weak on close, detailed studies of particular scenes and events. Just when one needs a careful description or discrimination, Sarris will ground his review in the vague adjectives: a scene or a character is "warm," "sincere," "Iyrical," or "convincing." These are words an under-graduate film major has already learned to avoid, and one is reminded at a moment like this that Sarris for better or worse is an autodidact who began with no formal education in film criticism. But these adjectives also tell us something more important. They remind us of a vital difference between Sarris and both Kael and Kauffmann–of how unwilling Sarris is to dissect a film beyond ordinary units of felt human emotion, and of how for him watching a film does all come down simply to "sincere," "warm," or "Iyrical" moments of human relationship.
Sarris's style and approach to films is the warmest and most humane of the three critics I am discussing here. But precisely in proportion to the affability, sincerity, and generosity it possesses (and it possesses them abundantly), it raises the question of whether personality and temperament (especially in an art as technologically, bureaucratically, and commercially top-heavy as contemporary filmmaking) can possibly be as sovereign and effective as Sarris wants and needs them to be. The relations of film forms and film roles, of traditions and individual talents, of genres and instances, seem altogether more mysterious, less direct, and more difficult to trace than Sarris's cult of personality and vocabulary of emotions can account for. One doesn't have to be a semiotician to see that criticism needs to move beyond the romantic myth of the isolated artist and the fallacy of the search for personal origins for works of art. There are moments even in the most personal films–moments of wildness or eccentricity as well as moments of conservatism or repression–that can never be traced back to any personal relationship, and that transcend any of the personal meanings and interpretations we may want to attach to them. But that is only to say, for some things we must read Kael and Kauffmann.
The point of course is not to try to choose between Kael, Kauffmann, and Sarris. Each offers a radically different focus on film and reminds us of the immensely different energies that generate any work of art, and of the incompatibly different contexts within which any work establishes itself. But it is especially appropriate to end with Sarris if only because he reminds us of the fundamentally unsystematic, untheoretical amateurism of each of these three major critics and of the very best of their colleagues–David Ansen at Newsweek, David Thomson at Film Comment, and David Denby at New York Magazine. They regard film as a form of human communication, and their own task more than anything else as simply to communicate some of the richness of their film experiences to their readers. American film criticism since James Agee is amateur criticism, and Kael, Kauffmann, and Sarris are all amateurs in the best sense of the word. They are lovers of film, passionate about their experiences owned, operated, and trained by no school or movement, following the great tradition of amateur film criticism bequeathed to them in this country by Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Robert Warshow, and Manny Farber.
As Auden recognized, the role of the popular film critic is almost unique in our culture. There is no criticism of any other art now being written with a larger, more devoted, more passionate readership. Writing on music and painting hasn't had this kind of audience since the scandals of the early twentieth century. Literary criticism lost its ties to a general community of writers and readers–the sort of nonspecialized audience that follows Canby, Kael, or Kauffmann on a regular basis–long before New Criticism came along with its technical jargon and air of scientific explanation. The proliferation of specialized journals and fields of study in our universities has only guaranteed that most professional academic criticism has more and more become the private property of the particular professions. These film critics inhabit a special and quite privileged moment in history.
But this general community of film critics and movie lovers is already dissolving, and the era of these genuinely amateur critics is drawing to a close. As these journalist-critics would be the first to admit, they are almost certainly the end of their line. They are the last generation to feel the luxury of its absolute amateurism, to be free completely to follow its interests and passions, to be free to invent or discover its own methods, vocabularies, and styles of writing about film. The professional film schools are already educating and graduating their replacements. Critical methods courses and text books are being organized. New journals are beginning to publish "scholarly," sanctioned film criticism in the best footnoted, PMLA tradition. The prospect of what will be done by the next generation of film critics writing as professionals with standardized methods for established institutions, is daunting. It's an especially good moment, therefore, to be grateful for what has been done by this generation, untrained, unspecialized, unsystematic, and unencumbered with professional jargon or affiliations, writing in the dark about the mystery and excitement of their experiences....
–Excerpted from "Writing in the Dark: Film Criticism Today," The Chicago Review, Volume 34, Number 1 (Summer 1983), pages 89-116.
* * *
The Hazards of
The corrupting influence of Vincent Canby and The New York Times on American Criticism and Culture
You have to fight sophistication. –John Cassavetes
One of the dozen or so most powerful and influential men in the world of film has never produced, written, directed, or acted in a movie. He doesn't even live on the West Coast. Vincent Canby, the 61-year-old first-string film critic for the New York Times for the past 16 years, lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and has no official connection with the glitzy world of the studios. But he has the ability to make or break the fortunes of scores of films every year.
Confronted with such a description of his critical clout, Canby vehemently denies it. First, he argues that certain films are almost guaranteed to find bookings and make money no matter what is said about them; the association of a particular star or director with a project (say, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, or Steven Spielberg) or the presence of certain trendy themes, combined with the commitment of a major studio to a saturation advertising campaign, can make a specific movie practically critic-proof. Still, these guaranteed blockbusters are few and far between (as investors learn to their sorrow). Indeed, as the exceptions, they only prove the rule of Canby's power in the vast majority of other instances.
Second, Canby insists that his power is not really personal at all. As he told one interviewer: "It is only the power of the Times, because the Times critic doesn't really exist outside of the Times." It's true that Canby's influence is not something he achieved on his own; the infamous Bowsley Crowther, Canby's predecessor, who wrote regularly for "the newspaper of record" and reigned in undisputed glory from 1940 to 1968, had the same power as Canby does today. But it is a distinction without a difference. However accrued, and however personally unearned, Canby's power is power nevertheless–and it is as great as the power of some of the biggest stars and producers in the business.
The distinctive power of the Times reviewer results from a virtually unique confluence of geographical, demographic, and bureaucratic factors peculiar to the relationship of the Times and the film distribution system in this country. New York City–not Washington, Boston, or Los Angeles–is the initial port of entry for virtually every important, unconventional, or independently financed American or foreign film. How such a film performs in the first few days or weeks of its initial run in New York commonly determines not only the size of the advertising budget that will be committed to it and the number of bookings it will subsequently receive, but in many cases whether it will ever receive any general distribution at all. If a film that wasn't produced as a guaranteed blockbuster (that is to say, a film that stands a chance of being interesting or innovative) fails to pack them in during its initial run in New York, there is a real likelihood that it will simply be pulled from distribution and written off as a tax loss by its backers. Thus, the New York reviewer, who writes about films released in and around the city and is read by residents of the city and its immediately outlying areas, has an inordinate influence within the film distribution system itself.
By this logic a reviewer at the New York Post or Daily News would have clout equal to Canby's, but the special distribution and readership of the Times make it uniquely powerful when it comes to determining the destiny of certain kinds of films. Its circulation is relatively small, as things are reckoned in this era of mega-reader and -viewership (approximately one million in the daily edition and a million and a half in the Sunday–though one should multiply the Sunday circulation by at least two for the probable readership for any given issue). But, as the ad agencies say, it is not the numbers that count, but the demographics. The Times has a near-monopoly on the attention of a certain kind of upscale reader. From Princeton to New Haven, yuppie couples, middle-aged professionals and businessmen, and tweedy Ivy League alums of all stripes define the typical Canby reader. And this is exactly the audience–one with the financial wherewithal, the leisure time, and the artistic curiosity and presumed independence of aesthetic judgment–that determines the fate of the non-blockbuster or innovative film. It is this audience that Canby either delivers or doesn't.
Indeed, it might be argued that three recent changes have made Canby's power even greater than Crowther's, or any previous Times critic's. First, there has been the decline of the studios as committed promoters of their own work; even B-pictures were once part of a larger package of films assured of being given some minimal level of promotion and support no matter how they fared in their initial weeks. Second, the cable television market has expanded (which encourages producers of small-budget or independent films to maximize their short-term gains and minimize their projected long-term losses by pulling a film from theatrical distribution and dumping it on the cable market if it gets into critical or commercial trouble). Finally, the psychology of the individual ticket purchaser has changed; where film-goers in the 1940s and 1950s simply went out "to see a picture" (often any picture) on Saturday nights, the critically informed, college-educated viewer in this era of higher ticket prices and less accessible theaters increasingly looks to specific critics for advice on whether or not to go to a particular film. All of which is why it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the non-blockbuster, non-critic-proof movie–the small, independent, innovative, unusual film–hangs in the balance every time Canby chooses to write about it, or not to.
I don't mean to slight the reviewing of his junior colleagues who also write on film for the Times. But it is undeniable that Canby is officially their supervisor (under the general editorship of Walter Goodman), and that he sets the tone and style for much of their work. Nor is it my intention to make the job of a regular film reviewer sound easier than it is. The effect of sitting through hundreds of absolutely dreadful films a year must be one of the most mind-numbing and spirit-killing imaginable. The percentages are relentlessly against the critic with high standards: 19 out of 20 films are guaranteed to be an almost complete waste of time. Thus the temptation to become cynical about the whole process, to lower one's standards in order to salvage a bit of self-respect by finding redeeming qualities in whatever piece of drivel one is forced to watch, is almost overwhelming. But it is precisely the rarity of a work of true intelligence and beauty that makes it all the more important that a critic not become cynically relativistic. He must, instead, hold fast to his values in order to be able to distinguish the rare good film when it does come along.
That is what Canby has failed to do. He sold out his critical standards long ago in order to avoid the hard words and stern judgments that otherwise would be required of him over and over again. Instead, nothing is taken very seriously or objected to very strenuously. The result is a critical abrogation of values. Canby represents the clubman as critic.
Canby's critical beliefs and practices are inseparable from the general tone he takes in his reviewing. It is almost invariably light and disarmingly facetious. The effect, at first, is one of extreme geniality; nothing seems to ruffle or upset Canby. But what seems pleasantly facetious when applied to the latest installment of Rocky or Star Wars eventually becomes annoying when applied to almost everything. Of course, most Hollywood film is indeed junk food for the senses, and deserves no better or more serious treatment. Still, Canby doesn't quite take any of the serious films he views seriously enough to become passionate or earnest about them.
Everything is a bit of a goof, an occasion for urbanity, an experience of irony. It seems no accident that the films he most likes tend to be blandly genial in the way his writing usually is. To call a film "funny," lightly "entertaining," or above all, "not to take itself too seriously" is, for Canby, one of the supreme forms of praise. To treat a work of art in a cute, tongue-in-cheek way is a rhetorically expedient method for any critic who would spare himself the effort of difficult critical discriminations, and the potential dangers of a personal commitment to a serious judgment. Canby's techniques of intellectual hedging or equivocation are many. He is, first, a master of the lightly ironic use of the negative understatement to suggest more than he is ever willing to commit himself to in a positive way. This is what in classical rhetoric is called the use of "litotes"–saying what something is not rather than what it is. At least as long ago as Mark Antony's funeral oration for Julius Caesar, rhetoricians have known that ironic negatives are always politically safer and argumentatively easier than a clear commitment to anything positive. Canby's favorite and most maddening way of deploying negative understatements is in pairs, in a strategy of the excluded middle. Consider this: "Though it's far from being an exercise in avant-garde techniques, Smithereens is not especially conventional." Or this: "[The writer and the director of Alligator] do not transform the formula film into some higher art form, but neither do they rip it off." Or this, about one of the James Bond films: "For Your Eyes Only is not the best of the series by a long shot, but it's far from the worst." You get the idea. Canby gets full credit for critical judiciousness, and for a sense of historical or generic context, even as he archly and ironically avoids the bother of having to stake his judgment on anything particular at all. On occasion the pairing can even be between two positives, as when we are told that Ed Pincus's Diaries "inevitably reveals a lot more and a lot less than meets the eye," and the film itself disappears completely.
But for Canby these are relatively blatant equivocations. He is usually much more adept at fence-sitting. One of his subtler techniques involves modifying a potentially positive statement with a potentially negative one, with no indication of the discrepancy between the terms. One might call it praising with faint damns, as when he describes The Godfather as "a superb Hollywood movie," or characterizes Raiders of the Lost Ark in the following terms:
If Hollywood insists on making films designed to gross hundreds of millions of dollars by appealing to the largest possible audiences, it could not do much better than this imaginative, breathless, very funny homage to the glorious days of B-pictures.
It is crucial to take in the double-edged quality of these modifiers, which, in case we don't get the point, is explained in the final sentence of The Godfather review, when Canby sums up the film as "one of the most brutal and moving [signs of shilly-shallying already creep in with this doublet] chronicles of American life ever designed [and watch this final twist] within the limits of popular entertainment." Canby wants credit for asserting something that he is not only unable or unwilling to defend, but that, when challenged, he reserves the right to unsay.
His use of deliberately wacky metaphors is another way in which he coyly and self-protectively distances himself from his own comments, as when in his review of Syberberg's Our Hitler he compares the director to a character in Animal House:
Like the dopey student in National Lampoon's Animal House, who, as he smokes marijuana for the first time, is suddenly aware of the universes contained within the atoms of his own little finger, Mr. Syberberg is not one who quickly dismisses his own insights, whether good, bad, indifferent or secondhand.
This is like comparing Gotterrdammerung to Fantasia. It is a snide attempt at trivialization by association, which at the same time cutely reserves the right to unsay itself (Don't you get it? It's only a joke. Where's your sense of humor?) as soon as it is questioned. It is a rhetorical technique that Pauline Kael invented and introduced into the mainstream of highbrow film criticism, but even she never carries it to the heights of stupidity that one finds in Canby.
Canby self-protectively writes and unwrites himself like this in review after review, simultaneously praising and patronizing a film, patting it on the head and kicking it in the rump, demonstrating at the same time his love of trashy "movies" and his reverence for "cinema." As he puts it in a further rumination on Spielberg and Raiders: "Is it possible that Spielberg will ever make a film on the order, say, of Francois Truffaut's Stolen Kisses? Probably not, but then Mr. Truffaut probably never will make a film like Raiders." As in this last statement, delivered in the best pseudopatrician manner, his love for Hollywood is proclaimed as a kind of deliberate slumming, just as his love for Art (typically signified by Truffaut–the petit bourgeois as artist) recognizes that it is, alas, never really as much "fun" as junk is. He demonstrates his superiority to the experience he writes about, even as he shows that that superiority doesn't in the least prevent him from being one of the guys and liking it anyway.
Canby is never wounded by a film, never angered, never elated, never transported. Within the rhetorical and psychological world of his criticism, such eruptions of emotion, such deep intimacies of response, would be bad form. That would be taking films too seriously, a terrible admission that films matter. For Canby, however, films cozily exist more or less in their own hermetic network of relationships with other films. That is the most disturbing implication of an expression like "a superb Hollywood movie" or the comparisons of one filmmaker or film with another in every one of the preceding quotations. Canby isn't evaluating original expressions; he is grading imitations of imitations, evaluating copies of copies. That is why his reviews become, more than half the time, exercises in triangulating the positions of films vis-a-vis each other.
Of course, such contextualizations have their value. But at their best they can be no more than a prelude toward an appreciation of life and experience outside the movies. That is the movement that never occurs in Canby's prose (except in a special sense I will discuss). Taking his cue from the fatuousness of writers and critics who give us novels that are about novel-writing and poems that are about poetry, Canby's movies usually are about, or refer us to, other movies, which is why the discussion of one film so quickly and easily segues into the discussion of another and then another. This slipperiness is one of the most characteristic aspects of Canby's critical performance. But it is less a process of free association than the consequence of a coherent theory of how films mean. Meaning is always relative–as in the following description of Caddyshack, which reads like a parody of Canby's critical approach to even the most serious films. It would take an Einstein to sort out the truth among all of this relativity: "It's not as funny as Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, but it is less pushy than Meatballs. It is not as thickly stocked with outrageous moments as Animal House, yet it is far easier to take to take than Where the Buffalo Roam."
But Canby's critical relativism isn't limited to dazzling us with his command of cinematic references. One of the greatest compliments he feels he can give a film is to allude to its relationship with a work of literature. It is hardly surprising that someone who is implicitly so contemptuous and patronizing of the experience of film-going should feel that the supreme honor he can pay it is to dignify it with a literary pedigree or allusion. While Canby's breezy comparisons of one trashy film with another may be amusing, his aspiration toward Arnoldian High Seriousness, when he pays literary homage to a "classy" film, is positively embarrassing.
His recent treatment of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters was typical. Canby worships Allen. Given his slumming attitude toward film-going, one is not at all surprised to see him trooping into service every literary allusion or piece of lit-crit jargon that comes to hand in his attempt to dignify his favorite. Thus, the film has, we are not amazed to discover, "the narrative scope of a novel." The title character is compared to Galatea and the setting to the forest of Arden. The film's comic structure is said to be "of almost classic shapeliness." And the sequence of arbitrary happy endings that are tacked on to the end of the movie is significantly transformed in his review into "the series of reconciliation scenes that conclude the film."
Note that these comparisons are not part of any real analysis of the "novelistic" qualities of the movie. As anyone who has seen the film knows, such an analysis would be impossible to support for this film anyway. They are just empty phrases in the air, incense burned before the shrine to Woody. And Canby offers more in another review of the same film, invoking not one but two of his favorite laudatory adjectives, "literate" and "literary," in the same sentence. "Mr. Allen," Canby announces from the mountaintop, "has become not only America's most literate filmmaker, but also our most literary one." What exactly this means, and why it should be a compliment and not an insult to a filmmaker, is not entirely clear.
This toniness may be called Canby's Grand Allusion Style (or GAS, for short). The place to encounter it at its glibbest, fuzziest, and most self-indulgent is not in Canby's daily reviews (from which I have been principally quoting up to now), but in his "think pieces," called "Film View," in the Times's Sunday edition. His editors have apparently been delighted with these pieces, since nothing has more notably characterized Canby's tenure at the Times than their gradual expansion and institutionalization. They are the Arts and Leisure section's equivalent of the geopolitical ruminations of James Reston or Flora Lewis on the Op-Ed page.
In the specific instance of Hannah and Her Sisters, Canby followed his Friday review of the film with a Sunday "Film View" column devoted exclusively to it, a form of homage in itself. Here Canby went much further than "literate" and "literary," segueing all the way from Woody Allen to Peter Handke, and from there to "all fiction":
If Annie Hall and Manhattan might be called novellas, then Hannah and Her Sisters looks to be Mr. Allen's first completely successful, full-length novel.
Some years ago critics liked to point out that Peter Handke, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras and other authors of the so-called nouveau roman were children of the cinema. They borrowed jump cuts, wrote in the present tense (as if reporting a movie's plot) and described the surface of things as neutrally as a camera recording people and objects in its view.
Mr. Allen doesn't make "nouveau films" (among other things his films are usually too comic to be chilly in the manner of the nouveau roman), but most of his narratives, starting with Take the Money and Run, employ the kind of cinematic freedom–freedom to jump around in time and place and point of view–that originally inspired the authors of the nouveau romans. Curiously enough, it's this freedom that now makes Hannah and Her Sisters seem quite as literary as it is cinematic. All of Mr. Allen's films are stuffed with literary references, but Hannah and Her Sisters demonstrates literary techniques and devices as often as it drops names.
Hannah and Her Sisters somehow manages to keep eight people in focus simultaneously. Though the story appears to proceed chronologically, there are also extended flashbacks as well as ellipses that hurl the narrative forward while sustaining the essential mystery (who did what to whom and why?) that is the basis of all fiction, not only the whodunit.
I quote the central passages in Canby's argument (using the term loosely) at such length to show that the briefer quotations above are not unfairly excerpted from a context that might explain them. The longer the passage, in fact, the more muddled is what passes for reasoning in Canby's prose. There is so much fuzzy thinking here that it is difficult to know where to begin pointing out its fatuousness. What, exactly, is being asserted among all of these leaps of association? What do these platitudes and pontifications mean? How does Allen's movie "keep eight people in focus simultaneously" in a way that a Clint Eastwood movie doesn't? In what single respect does Allen's movie in any way resemble a novel by Handke, Robbe-Grillet, or Duras?
Note more generally how evasive this whole course of argument really is. After devoting the first paragraph to the "novelistic" quality of the film, and the second to the nouveau roman and its presumed relevance to a consideration of Allen's filmmaking, Canby typically unsays the connection in the first sentence of the third paragraph and replaces it with a much weaker assertion that the film "demonstrates literary techniques and devices," and then in the fourth paragraph changes course once again to urge some sort of unspecified connection between what Allen does and "the basis of all fiction." One cannot help feeling, finally, that half the effect of the passage depends on impressing the reader with Canby's putatively superior knowledge of writers like Handke, since anyone who really is familiar with the nouveau roman, or has recently read Duras, Robbe-Grillet, or Handke, would instantly detect the preposterousness of the allusions. Who (even more than Allen) is guilty of "dropping names" or "jumping around"?
But Canby's rhetoric and his saltatory form of argument are not reserved merely for high-toned films. Compare the following "Film View" description of Alligator, an unabashed piece of trash about an alligator who terrorizes the New York sewer system. This is a movie so bad that it has to be seen to be believed, but in treating it as a genre picture Canby conveniently manages to avoid harder tasks of analysis and substitutes in their place an effusion on the conventions of B-picture narrativity:
The film meets its classic narrative obligations as carefully as a composer of a sonnet meets his obligations to a form. The movie is as entertaining as it is because one can enjoy the real if rudimentary suspense on the screen, while also enjoying an awareness of what the moviemakers are up to. It's sort of like watching Macbeth for the dozenth time. You've seen it before. You know how it's going to end, but there's still the excitement of the variations included in this particular performance of a familiar piece.
Overlooking the dreary (and irrelevant) invocation of the sonnet form as an analogue for Hollywood's B-pictures, one still has to ask, what does this mean? Even allowing for the silliness of the argument, and the typically self-aggrandizing grandiosity of the analogies, the most disturbing aspect of this passage is what it reveals about Canby's attitude toward all art–not just films but sonnets, and Shakespeare too. After all, the literary references are meant to be taken seriously. Is this really, truly all that Canby gets from reading a poem or watching Macbeth once he knows "how it's going to end"?
Let me offer a lexicon of Canby-ese, not to be churlish or picky about particular words and phrases, but in an honest effort to understand his aesthetic premises. We have already seen that the best scripts are "literary" (not to mention "literate"). Favorite terms of praise for a film are "sweet," "appealing," "charming," "beautiful," "handsome," "elegant," and "nice." The best performances are "convincing," "compelling," "effective," "believable," and "carry conviction." And the overall effect of a film that "works," and which is made by someone "who knows what he is doing" (preferably while being "high-spirited" and "not taking himself too seriously"), is that it is "fun," "enjoyable," and "entertaining" (three crucial terms in Canby's vocabulary), preferably while also being "sincere," "buoyant," "clever," "witty," and "funny," or demonstrating its "class" or "style."
What is wrong with this critical vocabulary? One does not have to be in favor of cinematic "ugliness" or "illiterateness," of performers who are not "believable" or "convincing," or of movies that are no "fun" or not "entertaining," to feel that the elevation of these particular values (to the exclusion of virtually all others) amounts to a very alarming aesthetic. It is precisely the chirpy, perky, sprightly character of these criteria of evaluation that is most disturbing. One is accustomed to seeing invocations of "charm," "handsomeness," and "fun" as measures of value in the Sunday Times–in ads of Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, Clinique, and Club Med. But these are hardly the supreme values that one would expect in a serious reflection on art and contemporary culture. They are, indeed, precisely the values such a reflection should question.
One might defend Canby's insistent attention to a film's "handsomeness" and "buoyancy" as just another sign of a generosity toward mediocre pictures, or as a polite attempt to put the cheeriest face on his responses to mediocre work, if it weren't for the fact that these terms are not reserved for inoffensively bad movies. They are Canby's supreme accolades for the films that will subsequently make his Ten Best list at the end of each year. What we have here, in sum, is only more "Fashions of the Times." Or to put it another way, Canby is always slumming. The most that a work of art can be is "entertaining," "stylish," "clever," or "appealing," because there is nothing really serious going on with it, nothing that will affect our lives outside the movies.
Of course high critical bromides–such as "style is content" (that chestnut actually appeared in a review of Brian De Palma's Blow Out) and "humanist values will never be superseded" (from another "Film View" column)–are thrown in for ballast, to keep the trifling from blowing away. But in the end, art is there to "entertain" us, and who dares ask more of it? It does not change our lives or our perceptions, it does not assault our prejudices, it does not move us to new ways of knowing and feeling. The experience of seeing even the best film is aesthetically equivalent to the enjoyment of the supper that follows it; both contribute to a "fun" or "entertaining" evening out. It is only because most people (film critics included) already unconsciously patronize movies that a critical approach like Canby's can seem even remotely adequate.
The gentility of criticism in Canby's hands is made clear by the two general categories of film that he always receives well. They can be roughly called the "escapist/fantasy/camp/farce/ or genre picture" film and the "realist/humanist/socially relevant/personal/ or domestic drama" film. Examples of the first that Canby has praised in print are Star Wars, Porky's, Body Heat, Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, E.T., Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out. Examples of the second are Tootsie, Gandhi, Gregory's Girl, Nashville, My Dinner With Andrè, Chan Is Missing, and Hannah and Her Sisters. In short, if Lucas, Spielberg, De Palma, and genre picture makers everywhere are the patron saints of the first type, Altman, Pollack, Pakula, and Allen are the guardian angels of the second.
Canby's receptivity to these different kinds of films might initially seem puzzling. After all, what could be more different from a slice-and-dice stomach turner like Dressed to Kill or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than a Masterpiece Theatre snooze like Gandhi? Or less resemble big-budget adventure extravaganzas like Raiders and Star Wars than a small-budget domestic drama like Chan Is Missing or an actor's vanity piece like Tootsie or Private Benjamin? To say that they are all films of different degrees of banality and different kinds of badness doesn't go far enough in the way of explaining Canby's fondness for them. What all of these films (as they are understood by Canby) have in common is that none of them threatens a settled, smug, complacently bourgeois sense of what constitutes "reality."
A vast embourgeoisement of criticism has taken place. It involves Herculean feats of misunderstanding on Canby's part. One has to disregard De Palma's horrifyingly heartless misogyny, and his sense of life as localized in the reptilian brain, to treat his films merely as ingenious stylistic experiments in genre picture making; or disregard Altman's cartoon sense of human interaction, and his sneering contempt for his own characters, to treat him as a social satirist of American manners and mores. But having done that, these two filmmakers (and others) become safe for Canby's appreciations of them.
The escapist/fantasy/camp/farce/ or genre picture doesn't threaten bourgeois reality simply because the first clause in its narrative contract with the audience is that it agrees never to impinge uncomfortably on it. All of the dramatic transactions in a fantasy film take place in the never-never land where Steven Spielberg's pictures are set, just as the camp or genre pictures Canby likes so much keep reminding us that they are just movies about movies, walled-off from the world outside of the movie theater by their self-referentiality and their rule-governed conventionality.
The socially relevant/personal/domestic dramas that Canby likes are equally tame, domesticated, and safe for mass consumption. They don't threaten his view of the world precisely because their value system is an absolutely uncritical extension of that world. The films of Lumet, Lean, Pakula, Malle, Allen, and Mazursky are almost always as eminently reasonable, sanely "humanistic" (in Canby's limiting sense of the term), and socially melioristic as Canby's own sense of life. They are films that the entire Upper West Side can, upon Canby's recommendation, see safely, with impunity, knowing that nothing is really at stake, that no sacred cows will be gored, that polite supper chat will not be affected by the film that precedes it.
Consider the example of Private Benjamin, the Goldie Hawn vehicle, a film Canby liked well enough to nominate as one of the Ten Best of the year it appeared. Canby's approach to it is revealing of his entire way of looking at movies:
[It] is the kind of service comedy that fell into disrepute during the Vietnam War, but which, before that, had been a staple in almost any year's release schedule. Everybody made them–Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Bob Hope, Chaplin, Keaton, even Cary Grant, who starred in Howard Hawk's classic I Was a Male War Bride.
Private Benjamin is an old friend brought up to date in this woman's army, which Judy Benjamin joins under the impression she's signing up for an extended stay at some place like Elizabeth Arden's Main Chance. Judy Benjamin is, as she puts it, "29 years old and trained to do nothing," the sort of woman whose second wedding day is almost ruined when an ottoman arrives upholstered in beige when she had distinctly ordered mushroom.
Miss Hawn, even when she must look sort of wilted, like the figure on the top of a week-old wedding cake, is totally charming as the bemused suburban princess who forsakes a house with a live-in maid, her membership in the country club, and her role as man's best friend to find life's meaning in the service. She's an enthusiastic farceur, but her characterization is so firmly based that she can slip from slapstick to romantic comedy and back without missing a beat.
Private Benjamin is funny, and every now and then, like Judy Benjamin, possessed of unexpected common sense. Judy is ultimately appealing because she's no dope. "I really didn't get the point of An Unmarried Woman," she says at one point. "I would have been Mrs. Alan Bates so fast." She could also be a movie critic.
This passage reveals still more about Canby's conception of art. There is the idea of a good film as "an old friend," and all the better, one ideally "possessed of common sense." And there is Canby's use of the notion of "a kind of" film (in the first paragraph) and of "a sort of" character (in the second paragraph), which are two of his most common critical mannerisms. What both of these views assume is that the overall experience of a film, as well as the particular experiences presented within it, is ultimately reducible to a set of understandings and beliefs that exist outside the film, which could more or less be agreed upon before it ever begins. Even when he is not explicitly reducing films, events, and characters to "types," "sorts," and "kinds" as he does here, Canby's fundamental operating premise is that the purpose of a film is to present recognizable types, sorts, and kinds of experiences and characters (if it is not simply an escapist/fantasy movie, whose purpose is to leave intact and unsullied our repertory of types, sorts, and kinds). The greatest and most brilliant films imaginable, for Canby, only do the same thing that he describes in this review, in perhaps somewhat more detail or with more intricacy. A good film, in brief, is a film that confirms us in our prior understandings and conceptions.
The bourgeois repressiveness and reactionary values implicit in Canby's writing are, alas, typical of so many other film critics' writing today. Canby is popular in part because his attitudes are so much of a piece with the premises of most film-goers and film reviewers, especially his admiration for genre or escapist garbage, and his pride in that admiration, as if it represented a kind of aesthetic radicalism and not simply another form of conservatism. Genre critics of Canby's stripe are legion–from television commentators like Neal Gabler, Leonard Maltin, and Gene Shalit, to journalistic reviewers like Richard Corliss, Richard Schickel, and Pauline Kael, to many of the academics running our major film schools.
They fool themselves into regarding their silly relish for the old, bad Hollywood B-picture, the genre-film remake, or the trashy escapist/fantasy flick, as a form of critical daring and artistic eclecticism. But they are, in effect, as aesthetically reactionary and culturally conservative as the old Legion of Decency. And perhaps more so: at least the old censorship organizations believed that something was at stake when a film violated bourgeois codes of morality and belief. Canby, Kael, and company either make such films conform to these codes (for example, by arguing, as a film colleague of mine does, that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film about the average American family) or consign them to an insulated, self-contained category of genre, so that what goes on within them never impinges on life outside the movies at all.
To call Canby's criticism culturally and artistically conservative, however, is really to understate the case. His Times aesthetic is extraordinarily resistant to everything that is artistically eccentric, socially or psychologically non-normative, or narratively disruptive of socially sanctioned categories of experience. It is profoundly unreceptive to the very energies that the greatest and most interesting works of art release. Everything of value that occurs in such a work is, by definition, an assault on the received understandings of experience that we had before we encountered it. But if films expose us only to experiences that we recognize and comfortably understand, there is no point in seeing them, since we are not going to learn anything or be tested in any way.
Canby claims to want wildness and energy and assault. On more than one occasion he has been heard to complain about the tameness or blandness of the films he reviews. But in practice, every time a film gets a little fresh with him, or a character or situation goes a little wild, he is the first to complain. The only kind of marginally original or innovative film that Canby can tolerate is the "sweet," "gentle," "charming," "humane" film like Gregory's Girl, Chan Is Missing, My Dinner With Andrè, or any of John Sayles's efforts. For those unfamiliar with these particular films, I would point out that, whatever their other virtues, they are dependably "entertaining" in the blandest and most urbane sense of the word. But confront Canby with something truly passionate, energetic, or wild, and invariably he doesn't know what to do.
Of course one sheds no tears when Canby misjudges the run-of-the-mill Hollywood film. Such films–the vast majority of movies released in any given year–deserve their critics, who give no better than they get. The trouble arises when Canby becomes the critic of last resort for an eccentric or innovative small-budget film that desperately needs the free advertising of a good review in the Times, which may be the only general-interest publication in which it stands a chance of getting any coverage at all. The films I have in mind are some of the few authentic masterpieces of the last 15 years or so (all of them released during the period Canby has been at the Times): Barbara Loden's Wanda, Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Homecoming, Robert Kramer's Ice and Milestones, Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky, Paul Morrissey's Trash, Flesh, and Heat, John Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Lovestreams.
How has Canby treated them? In the same neutralizing manner that he applies to better-known movies: as "escapist/fantasy/genre" work or as "realist/humanist/socially relevant." Thus May's Heartbreak Kid is treated as a kind of screwball comedy of divorce, and her Mikey and Nicky as a variation on the buddy-boy films of the mid-seventies. John Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz is treated as a fairy-tale romance movie, and his Killing of a Chinese Bookie as a hard-boiled film noir or gangster picture. Paul Morrissey's Heat is treated as a camp parody of Hollywood thirties romances. Canby's reviews (which may be just as insidious when he chooses not to damn but to praise) amount, then, to a kind of critical gentrification, in which the roughnesses are sanded down in the mill of the ordinary and the hard edges are smoothed away.
Here is Canby on Cassavetes' great Minnie and Moskowitz, a violent, wrenching exploration of the ravages of passion. One's heart sinks at the transformation of this rough, powerful, film into a "contemporary fairy tale":
Minnie and Moskowitz is a contemporary fairy tale about a youngish eccentric parking lot attendant (Seymour Cassel), who is essentially a middle-class Jewish prince in a hippie disguise, and the very beautiful, mixed-up, middle-class gentile princess (Gena Rowlands), whose hand he wins in what is certain to be an idyllic, Maggie-and-Jiggs sort of marriage.
Or consider what he does to Paul Morrissey's Trash–a brilliant frontal attack on all of the bourgeois values that may be attributed to Canby himself. He completely deflects the attack by treating the film as a camp parody of earlier Hollywood movies:
This second film by Paul Morrissey is a relentless send-up of attitudes and gestures shanghaied from Hollywood's glamorous nineteen-thirties and forties. All feelings, all values are turned upside down and played for laughs, with the result that it's difficult for me to take Trash more seriously than it takes itself. The dialogue is clever and the performances carry conviction, but never once did I have the impression that the movie had any intent other than entertainment as escapist as that offered by Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and James Cagney.
Note how even the subversive nature of Cagney's art is lost on Canby. He misses the boat on more than just new movies.
If he can't tame the imaginative wildness and exorbitance in a work of genius by means of genre-izing it, Canby's alternative tactic of domestication and control is to treat it as mere conventional naturalism. Confronted with a radically troubling work like Barbara Loden's Wanda, with its profoundly withdrawn title character, Canby reduces the ragged, eccentric figure to an unproblematic realistic "type." He brings into focus what was designed to stay out of focus. He kills the bizarre and troubling experience of a self in flight from self-expression by being so smugly knowing about what must have been intended to be expressed in the character (but which is the opposite of what was intended). In the process, he turns the strange and elusive into the banal, as he turns Wanda into what he patronizingly calls a "conventional first feature":
[Wanda] is a rather dumb young woman in the Pennsylvania coal country who, when we meet her, is drifting out of a marriage to a factory worker she couldn't care less about, and at the very end, is sitting, rather numb and baffled, in a road house, with strangers, drinking a glass of beer and holding a wet cigarette. Miss Loden's Wanda is unique and yet she's like hundreds of other youngish women you've probably seen sitting in bars in West Bend, Wisconsin, Lebanon, New Hampshire, or Urbana, Virginia, wearing her toreador pants, her hair in curlers, ordering her beer by brand label (and putting up a fuss if the bartender doesn't have it) and, towards the end of the evening, drifting off with a man, more or less out of courtesy, since he did pick up the checks.
It's not that there is anything factually incorrect about this summary of events and types (though there is that extraordinary snobbishness of tone, and Canby's blatant condescension to a whole class of people). But Canby's dogged literalism is really a technique of pacification, as is his single-minded focus on character and plot summary. By reducing a narrative to its plot, and to a few psychological traits of its characters, the pressures of desire and imagination within it are forgotten. In the same way, King Lear could be called the story of a domestic dispute between an old man and his daughters. All of the more disturbing aspects of the play would blow away in the storm on the heath. Old fool! Why doesn't he just go inside and keep to his room?
Perhaps the secret of the success of Canby's critical approach is that it almost perfectly matches the assumption of the men who make the studio productions he reviews. That is to say, his uncritical indulgence of Raiders or E.T. or Porky's as camp, farce, or escapist "entertainments," like his reverence for the humane, civilized, wise, charming, and literate Gandhi, Manhattan, Tootsie, or Kramer vs. Kramer, flawlessly mirrors the (often good) intentions of the artistic middlebrows involved in the projects themselves. That is why his criticism so often reads as if it were co-written by the studio publicity departments that promote the films. Canby's intuitive grasp of the studio mentality doesn't mean, however, that he is the ideal critic for its films. Quite the opposite: as someone who has unconsciously internalized the value systems of the people who produce and promote them, he is probably the individual least qualified to understand and analyze these bourgeois systems of belief, these codes of naive realism, and the tamely, genially earnest humanism that these producers, directors, and actors confuse with art.
The real tragedy of Vincent Canby's 16 years at the Times is not that he sends thousands to the likes of Porky's, Tootsie, Private Benjamin, Raiders, Nashville, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, or Manhattan. These films would probably have audiences in any case. It is that the vulgarity of his criticism–his taste for the glitzy, the tame, the trashy, the escapist, the entertaining, the safely bourgeois morality play–has misrepresented or failed to appreciate almost every one of the two or three dozen genuine works of greatness that have appeared at the movies during his tenure at the Times. He was in the position to identify, as a kind of advance messenger, the best in the year's films. Instead he has pandered to a view of the ultimate possibilities of human expression that can be satisfied by the works of Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, or David Lean. One longs for the day when the writing on film at the Times will be at least as passionate, as intelligent, as well-informed as the writing on the sports page.
–Excepted from: Ray Carney, "A Critic In The Dark:The corrupting influence of Vincent Canby and The New York Times on American Criticism and Culture," The New Republic June 30, 1986 pp. 25-33.
For a more positive view of the functions of criticism, see the Independent Vision section.
To read more about fads and fashions in criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness" and "The Functions of Criticism" in the Carney on Culture section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, all of the other pieces in this section, and the essays "Skepticism and Faith," Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section.
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