Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Critical mass

Last week I promised to mention some of my favorite movie reviewers. (Other than me, of course.) Sadly, a couple of them (Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby) are no longer with us. That’s what happens when your favorite film critics are, like, really old.

Does this mean that film reviewers are not as good as they used to be? Or does it merely mean that I am becoming an old fogy, declining into senility and comforting myself with the idea that things really used to be better in the good old days? Well, you see… uh, sorry, what was the question again?

I suppose movie reviews are like the movies themselves (or songs). We tend to get emotionally attached to the ones that we see at an impressionable time in our lives. Still, I cannot help but think sometimes that film criticism—and writing in general—had a higher standard back in the days when more people did more reading. And when, let’s face it, the economics and society of the country were such that there was a cultural elite. It’s somewhat like television. When old people wax nostalgic about the golden age of television, they are essentially talking about a time when the audience was limited to well-off people, mainly concentrated in New York and a few other large cities. Film criticism, like television and movies, has undergone a process of “mainstreaming,” which has made these media more accessible and, well, democratic. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, although it did give rise to the term “least common denominator” as a measure of cultural quality.

Some people (most notably and recently, Phillip Lopate in his book American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now) refer to the “golden age” of film criticism as the era extending from the 1950s to the 1970s and which was dominated by the likes of Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby, Molly Haskell and Manny Farber. Preeminent among this group were Sarris and Kael. We know this because they each had a movie villain named after them. George Lucas dubbed General Kael in his story for Willow (directed by Ron Howard) after the latter, and eleven years later the evil warlord Sarris (played by Robin Sachs) in Galaxy Quest (best line: “Perhaps I am not as stupid as I am ugly, commander!”) was named after the former. (The preceding allows me to correct what I wrote five years ago, when I noted Kael’s passing, and mistakenly asserted not only that she was the only film critic to have a movie villain named after her but that General Kael had appeared in Star Wars.)

Or maybe those two critics are considered the titans of the golden age because they were the two best critics. Or maybe it was because they epitomized and championed two opposing movie philosophies. In that way, they were to film criticism what John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman were to economics. Or what Catholicism and Protestantism are to Christianity. Sarris represented what was known as the European-influenced auteur school of filmmaking, in which the emphasis was on the technique and language of cinema and a movie was seen as an individual artist’s vision. Kael, on the other hand, was more American-centric and attuned to popular culture and focused on the movie’s story. Now, I could cut to the chase here and just declare myself a “Kael-ian,” but it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, I have spent hours reading Kael’s criticisms but have barely read anything by Sarris. This was not a conscious choice, but an accident. In my youth Kael’s venue, The New Yorker was always more accessible than Sarris’s, The Village Voice. More crucially, The New Yorker always had wicked great cartoons. For me, Sarris was an eminence whose prose always showed up in quotes about movies. Kael was a friend. Morever, Kael had the key quality that is essential for me if I am going to spend valuable time reading a film critic. She clearly loved movies, and her love was infectious. Reading her reviews made me love movies more. Even when she was panning a movie. And when she panned a movie, it was always a delicious poison dart that made me smile at its incisiveness. Frankly, a negative review of a movie, if done well, is always more fun to read than glowing praise. And Kael had that magic gift of making me hope that more bad movies would be made.

Trivial sidenote: Another Kael claim to pop culture immortality is a quote that has been frequently attributed to her (although occasionally, as well, to others). She was supposed to have said, in the wake of Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972, “How can that be? No one I know voted for Nixon!” There is apparently some grain of truth to the attribution. Author Craig Seligman told blogger Steven Rubio a couple of years ago that Kael had told him that she had declined to comment to a reporter on Nixon’s reelection, adding that she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. Another cited source (at Wikipedia) is a New York Times article about an address she gave, in which she was quoted by the paper as saying, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” In any event, the durability of the apocryphal comment clearly stems from the way it succinctly captures that sense of a person living in his or her own bubble of friends, acquaintances and media sources, which serves only to bolster and reinforce one’s pre-existing beliefs. There is scant reason, however, to think that Kael was cluelessly unaware of how her own world fit into the larger one.

Perhaps through her influence (not not), I suppose I was always a Kael-ian in that her view seemed more democratic. It wasn’t as elitist as the Sarris-ians’. You didn’t have to spend time in Europe (although I did) to understand Kael’s point of view. The Sarris school always seemed that bit more snobby. And yet it had its attraction for me too. Exposure to foreign and independent films at university opened a whole new world for me. And a year in France only cemented my appreciation for the cool of the likes of Godard and Truffaut. As more time went by and I saw more movies and realized that many of them were the same thing over and over, I came to be more appreciative of technique and innovation and efforts to expand the cinematic language. But I never lost my need for a good story. In the end, we cannot really do without both Kaelianism and Sarrisianism. They are two opposing tendencies but, as is usually the case, they need each other to survive and flourish. Kind of like the way that the tension between Apple and Microsoft keeps making computers get better.

The reality is, though, that most people don’t read critics based in New York. They tend to read the ones published in their local newspapers. It is natural to want a local perspective, even though most major movies show up the same day in cinemas across the country. For much of my adult life, the home town film reviewers were the Seattle ones. And their ranks were amazingly stable while I lived there. The two main ones were John Hartl of The Seattle Times and William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Hartl stopped being the Times’s full-time reviewer six years ago but I believe his work still appears there on a freelance basis, as well as in other national publications. As far as I know, Arnold is still working away at the PI. Of the two, Hartl was the easier to take. His reviews never got me very excited, but they were always reasonable. I could read him week after week without getting too worked up, which is not necessarily a good thing. He did commit the cardinal sin, however, of once divulging the title of a movie screened at the Seattle International Film Festival’s Secret Festival, triggering a ban from future screenings, and this hurt his standing with die-hard film buffs. Arnold, on the other hand, frequently made me angry. I know that everyone is entitled to his opinion, but really, how could someone get it wrong so regularly? I frequently joked that I used Arnold as a counter-indicator. If he liked a movie, I avoided it, and if he hated it, I was the first in the queue. That may not have been 100 percent true, but it was close enough.

Far and away my favorite Seattle film reviewer was a man by the name of Richard T. Jameson. He wrote for The Seattle Weekly, as well as being its typesetter—which only endeared him to me further, being a former typesetter myself. Jameson’s reviews were always a pleasure to read. His writing had qualities that I found in few other places. I always felt I learned something I never knew before about cinema as I read his words. And, as with Kael, his work was infused with a clear and unabashed love of the movies—a love that was infectious and made me want to run out and see the movie he was writing about, even if he didn’t think the movie was great. I have to confess that sometimes, as I sat in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater during the Seattle film festival, I would spot him (he was a hard man to miss) a few rows over, and (I am embarrassed to admit) I would keep an eye toward him to try to get an indication as to whether I should be liking what I was seeing on the screen or not. Often, his face had an absolute look of delight on it, as if there were no other place in the world he would rather be. Sadly (for me), Jameson left Seattle for New York and for a while was the editor of Film Comment. These days his reviews are hard to track down, although I find them on the web site of a Seattle neighborhood weekly.

Is the golden age of film criticism over? That’s hard to say. Usually, golden ages are clearly evident only in hindsight. The media landscape that film criticism lives in has certainly changed and will never be the same again. But then that is true of film as well. The good news is that, if you look for it, there is always good work being done out there, whether it is in film criticism or in filmmaking. In the old days, the problem was finding it because it was off in some faraway place. Nowadays, the problem is that there is too much dreck to sort through to find it. But it is there. And thanks to evolving technologies, the odds of finding it are getting better all the time.

* * *

In my brief and dismissive comment on radio movie reviews last week, I neglected to mention one of my favorite weekly experiences and one which I have mentioned a few times before. Film critic Mark Kermode regularly joins host Simon Mayo on BBC’s Five Live radio channel on Friday afternoons to discuss the current UK movie releases. While the radio medium doesn’t really allow for the depth and coherence of a printed film review, the banter between Kermode and Mayo is reliably informative and entertaining. There are worse ways to get information about movies and few that are so delightfully amusing. The comic chemistry between these two can best be compared (for an American audience anyway) to Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Happily, their chats are available to everyone with a computer via their podcast.

-S.L., 5 April 2007

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