THE SLIFR FORUM: CRITIC CATCHES CLASSICS, or Does It Matter That Mick La Salle Had Never Seen 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Blogger Kevin Lee runs a site called Shooting Down Pictures, a self-described chronicle his own attempt to see “every film of the list of The 1000 Greatest Films of All Time as compiled at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?. That list is derived from “1,193 critics, reviewers, scholars, filmmakers and other likely film types” that believe that the resulting list is “quite possibly the most definitive guide to the most-acclaimed movies of all-time.” A heady task to set for oneself, to be sure, but as Lee says in his blog profile, the other reason for his writing is “to chronicle my ongoing and evolving relationship with cinema.” Lee starts out with the assumption that there are others who may know more and have certainly seen more than he has yet to see, yet continues unblinkered in an attempt to fill as many of the gaps in his viewing history as possible.
So when San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick La Salle, a critic who I think is more often smart and enjoyable than not, recently published the confessional piece “Film Critic Sees Classics for the First Time,” it wasn’t too much of a surprise to think that he might have attracted some reaction to it, and that Lee would be one to offer a response. La Salle begins:
“No film critic has seen everything, and all film critics have famous classic movies that they have yet to see… Even though people know intellectually that it's impossible for any critic to have seen everything, they do expect critics to have seen everything they've seen, and they tend to get annoyed when they find out otherwise. Recently, I got a bucket of mail when I mentioned never having seen An Affair to Remember. Some people were actually angry about it. That's what prompted the concept for this article. I figured I'd pick five famous classics that I haven't seen (or have seen only in small parts) and watch them, and then write about the experience. In the process, I'd have an excuse to see Blade Runner, To Kill a Mockingbird, Young Frankenstein, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, of course, An Affair to Remember."
Before going on to actually address the five movies on his list, La Salle talks a bit about the life of a paid film critic:
“Film critics see a lot of movies. But most film critics actually like movies, so that's not so bad. In my leisure hours, I often watch movies, but those leisure hours are precious, so when I do watch a movie, it has to be something I really want to see. There are plenty of classics that I want to see, plenty that I'm excited to see, but then there are titles that seem merely obligatory - and it's very easy to postpone seeing the obligatory ones, and to keep postponing them indefinitely.
Also, especially if you're a critic, there are some titles that you will have heard so much about that you feel as if you've seen them already. Some have been anthologized in documentaries, so that you've seen the key scenes. To sit through them feels like going through the motions.”
In his response at Shooting Down Pictures, Kevin Lee questions the very basis of an article written by a professional film critic who would confess such ignorance with his own answer piece entitled “This Film Critic Actually Gets Paid for Flaunt His Illiteracy?” Lee’s piece is not the work of someone out to jealously throw paint on someone who gets paid to do what he (we) do with passion for free, though one could be forgiven, I suppose, for expecting that at first. Actually, Lee’s comments are pretty even-tempered and well-reasoned, written more out of a kind of empathy than outrage:
“His arguments here strike me as fairly reasonable - it’s safe to say that every cinephile has their own blind spots. Last summer, in the wake of the brouhaha surrounding Jonathan Rosenbaum’s diss of the late Ingmar Bergman, Rosenbaum admitted to not having seen one of Bergman’s most lauded works, Fanny and Alexander. (He later corrected that oversight, though he was unimpressed by the film). There were definitely phases that I’ve experienced where I would avoid - consciously or unconsciously - a certain film or a director’s work as it seemed that I had already absorbed all that I needed to know about it from second hand sources. But sooner or later I’d get around to seeing it, whether out of a sense of completist duty or compulsion, a feeling that many cinephiles out there know too well. I’m just surprised that Mick LaSalle isn’t one of them.”
This discussion rang a bell in my head because I went through a cinephilia confessional of my own last year while participating in a vote amongst a passel of fine writers on the greatest foreign films ever. While compiling my own list, I had to admit that there were plenty of holes in my film schooling when it came to recognized classics of Non-English film. But rather than run from that realization or try to mask it in some way, I decided to embrace it and use it as an excuse to not only come up with a list of great foreign films, but to provide some grounding for my readers in my own knowledge by pursuing a near-definitive list of films I still needed to see. And immediately upon posting that piece, I began to fear for what existed of my credibility in the online film community to which I felt so connected. Would this attempt to provide my readers some context for my perspective by admitting my omissions of experience be seen as evidence that I wasn’t worth taking seriously? Fortunately, for my peace of mind and my willingness to trust my instincts in the future, I got lots of feedback that suggested this was the right direction to go for a writer who has never claimed to be a definitive expert on anything, least of all foreign film history. Context is, it was suggested, much more important than reading breathless accounts and proclamations of the greatest this or that of all time, as if anyone could ever claim such perfect breadth of knowledge of experience.
This kind of laying out of the cards is, I think, what Mick La Salle was probably going after when he recently published his little confessional. The problematic difference, for me, and perhaps for Lee and others who commented on his site, might begin with the fact that, unlike myself, or Kevin Lee, or Ryland Walker Knight (to name just one friend who took part in the discussion of La Salle’s piece on Lee’s site), is that Mick La Salle is a professional film critic, a man who has been paid to write about films for 30 years, and who does so in a culture climate that is not exactly friendly toward print film criticism. At a time when there are probably literally thousands of young (and not-so-young) writers who are more than capable of writing passionately about film, La Salle comes off rather blithely ignorant about his position, his influence and, frankly, how his attitudes reflect on how film criticism is perceived by readers and newspaper editors, many of whom increasingly find such writing useful merely as consumer reportage, if at all. As Lee puts it, “It’s sad, because there are lots of great critics around the country who are losing their jobs in this current wave of mainstream media consolidation and syndication - and a critic like LaSalle is not helping their case.”
And really, I feel like tearing La Salle's hair out (leaving what precious little I have of my own alone) when I read something like: “Also, especially if you're a critic, there are some titles that you will have heard so much about that you feel as if you've seen them already. Some have been anthologized in documentaries, so that you've seen the key scenes. To sit through them feels like going through the motions.” For a man whose job is to see films and write about them to feel he hasn’t the time to devote to catching up on film history is depressing enough—How perforated would La Salle’s experience with film history be, and would he appreciate his time any more, if he had only the limited time I have to give to seeing films of any kind? But it’s infuriating to think that he feels like if he’s seen enough scenes from The Searchers or The Rules of the Game (to use two titles I hope LA Salle has seen), through exposure to Chuck Workman montage reels over the years, that he’s seen enough of the movies to know their essence, and that actually seeing them would only be “going through the motions.”
Finally, Lee makes the point, and I think it’s worth making one more time, that all this would be considerably less upsetting if, when he finally gets around to the five movies he wants to talk about, he actually had something to say. Of the five films he highlights, the only one he spends any real time considering is To Kill a Mockingbird, and then only to make some withering observations about Boo Radley and accuse those who revere it as “maintaining its classic status based on false memory and reputation.” But the other four movies are tossed off with barely a paragraph.
La Salle on Blade Runner: “It's an excellent movie, and if I were reviewing it I'd have to give it the highest rating. At the same time, it's not what I look for in entertainment, and I didn't particularly enjoy it so much as intellectually appreciate its virtues.”
On Young Frankenstein: “As is typical of Mel Brooks, this movie is a mix of dumb jokes that aren't funny, dumb jokes that are funny and brilliant, inspired bits that are classic and nothing can diminish them… and, of course, I'd seen all of them before, in documentaries, on YouTube, everywhere. Watching the actual movie straight through was amusing, though hardly necessary.”
On An Affair to Remember: “I liked this a lot more than I thought I would, and it was not quite the sappy indulgence that I expected… All in all, it's a good movie, and I'm glad I saw it.”
And here is the entirety of La Salle’s thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey: “Stanley Kubrick's compositions have a fascination in themselves, and there's something to be said for the movie's adventurous subject matter and its vision of the future. It's worth remembering that the film was made a year before the first moon landing. But having said all that, 2001: A Space Odyssey is virtually unwatchable, a boring, impenetrable experience that I'm glad to finally have behind me.
That La Salle’s conclusion about the Kubrick film was somewhat foregone is fairly well illustrated earlier in the piece when he says that “if science fiction isn't a favorite, you could easily end up going years before strapping yourself into a seat to sit through 2001: A Space Odyssey - especially if you've been warned by just about everyone (including people who like it) that it's the most boring movie on earth.” I’ve scratched my head long and hard and cannot think of a single person who likes that movie who would also say that it’s the most boring movie on earth. But it is truly perplexing that a film critic who had never seen 2001 before would not be moved to write anything more than the three generic, free-of-interest sentences he offers up.
My initial feeling that La Salle was rather brave for admitting his shortcomings about these films (and how many others hasn’t he seen, I wonder) soon gave way, in reading the piece, to my disdain for his arrogance in stooping to check back on films he figures are important to his readership, and then giving them the short shrift, the cold shoulder and/or the impatience of someone truly lacking insight. (For the record, La Salle devotes a little space to the fallout from his article here, and about 104 comments follow.) But am I being oversensitive here? If we cannot expect completism in film history from our paid film critics, is it wrong to at least expect humility or a seriousness of attitude when it comes to approaching those gaps? What are your thoughts on the La Salle piece? Do movies described as classics by a critic deserve a little more than this? If you’ve never seen it, and you’re a film critic for a major metropolitan newspaper, is watching Young Frankenstein "hardly necessary" just because you’ve heard every Frau Blucher joke a hundred times? If you were an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, would you be more or less inclined to get rid of a writer like La Salle and replace him with syndicated reviews based on a piece like “Film Critic Sees Classics for the First Time”? And if you’re a reader who values good film criticism in newspapers at the local level, does La Salle’s article warm your heart or set your spine to shiverin’?
The SLIFR Forum is open.