Monday, March 03, 2008

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.

22 comments:

Blaaagh said...

Having lived in the bay area, and subscribed to and read the Chronicle for all of those 17-odd years, I've always enjoyed LaSalle's writing, and I've tried and tried to remind myself not to base whether I'll go see a movie on whether he liked it or not. He's such an engaging writer that he can convince me, on occasion, that a film is brilliant or that it's garbage--and if it's the latter, I often see the movie later and find it well worth seeing, and I think back on Mr. LaSalle's (not his real name, as you may know) review with puzzlement.

I think his candor about not seeing those movies before is a hint to some of his appeal: he appears to live a pretty regular life, and I think that keeps him grounded in a sort of regular-person way. I'm not saying I always like it--I'd often rather read someone who's more obsessive about movies--but it helps that he's got a sense of humor and a healthy, humorous perspective about the movies and who makes them.

That said, I've sometimes been taken aback by his blithe dismissal of really challenging films; his comments on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are a good example. He's got a lot of fans, and detractors, in the area, and his Sunday pink-pages column Ask Mick LaSalle allows him the chance to answer to both of them in humorous fashion...still, he ought to try a little harder to imagine what it was like in the late '60s to see that film in a theater. I know he has a nifty DVD projection system in his home, but really the only place to see that movie is in a big auditorium with a huge screen and really good sound. I'm only a little older than he is, I think, but I remember taking a taxi with my big brother in (probably) 1968 to see it at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, at age 9 or so, and being so gripped and transfixed by it--scared by it, to be honest--and I remember trying to figure out what happened to the astronaut Keir Dullea played (Bowman?), and why this weird intelligence from space had taken him to a clean white room, given him a nice meal and made him old, then created from his dying self a huge baby out to grab/control the world. I was excited and fascinated by this mystery, and it's hard for me to understand why somebody who writes about movies wouldn't be. (I also was thrilled by how the image on the screen took up just about my whole field of vision, so that I was enveloped by the images--and even then I thought the light show was a bit show-offy, even if then I knew it was supposed to be cool.)

Well, to each his own; I know, at least, that LaSalle is certainly receiving--and responding to, in his usual humorous way--a ton of e-mails and letters letting him know where he went wrong. One thing I'll say for him, and which I always enjoyed about him: he engages with his readers. I miss reading him regularly.

Victor said...

No, I can't imagine that everyone in Mick LaSalle's circle who likes 2001 thinks it's the most boring movie ever made.

But 2001 is all of the following: slow, obscure, narratively-inert, action-light, poorly-acted. For most people, that does add up to "boring." And I think the adjectives I used are closer to matters of fact than of opinion, stipulating merely that those adjectives be given their conventional meanings -- i.e., one can say things like "the acting in 2001 works/is thematically apropos," but that doesn't mean it isn't "bad acting." It's just that bad acting works, in this case.

I should add that I think 2001 is a masterpiece, but there's no point denying what it is. My experience of non-cinephiles (scifi-geeks excepted) is that 2001 has a poor reputation.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I already covered my feelings on this on my own blog last week so I don't want to re-iterate everything now but I disagree with Victor's assessment of the acting. There's not a performance in the movie that plays like a performance, it's all perfectly natural. Watching conversations aboard the space station or the Discovery One it plays exactly like watching real people, not actors. Speaking as an actor I can say that, believe it or not, this is not an easy thing to do because one has the tendency to want to add flair to the performance. I've spent my life with actors and, so far at least, none of them has ever considered the acting in 2001 to be bad.

Adam Ross said...

I came to know LaSalle's writing through his syndicated "Ask the Critic" series, where he usually came off as snobbish -- particularly toward contemporary cinema. The questions from readers that he answered most passionately were the ones that dealt with classic film, and how superior they are to today's releases. Certainly not a new argument, but interesting when taken in the context of your post.

But I don't doubt LaSalle's credentials as a professional critic, he authored two books on pre-code Hollywood that are well-regarded.

bill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bill said...

I've discussed some of this at Jonathan's blog, so I'll also try not to repeat myself, but I will add this: "I've never seen '2001', because I don't like science fiction" should never be said, or even thought, by a serious, professional film critic.

W. Australopithecus said...

Lee's post begins with a short history of his experience with Mr LaSalle's criticism. Here's mine:

When I discovered Metacritic a few years ago, I took the time to familiarize myself with some of the critics around the country to whom I had previously had no exposure. Before long I decided that I really had nothing to learn from Mr LaSalle and no interest in what he had to say. So none of this really surprises me.

But that's just me...

Bob Westal said...

LaSalle can be funny, but if memory serves I decided I didn't care for him because of a certain amount of what you might call traditionalist intellectual snobbery, which tends to degrade genre films just for being in a genre.

To be fair, I suppose I should read LaSalle's piece and maybe read some of his older reviews to be sure about what I'm saying. However, since I just read those clips Dennis provided, reading the actual pieces would feel like I was just going through the motions.

blaaagh said...

I'm agree with Jonathan Lapper about the acting in 2001: it is understated, but I don't think any of it is bad.

I found myself shaking my head when I read LaSalle's comments about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, as I have many times when I read his opinions. But I've always found his writing enjoyable enough, and his "voice" affable enough--and his perceptions often good enough--to be sort of a fan.

blaaagh said...

"I'm agree..."

Ulp, I mean "I agree..." That'll teach my to proofread by comments.

Editor A said...

I had never heard of him before, but the man is clearly a fool. Thank you for posting this because it was entertaining, but also because I can now cross this fellow off my list rather easily due to the 2001 capsule review alone. Nice work, jackass!

Originally I was going to say we could easily forget him, but, no, it's better to maintain a list of such people (as I do), so that if they pop up in a different forum years later when you may have forgotten them, you can consult your list and happily discount everything they say.

I'm not quite sure why you're keeping tabs on newspaper critics anyway. Movie reviews should be in-depth with spoilers and should come out after people have had a chance to see the film and are ready to think about it and discuss it fully (which would include consideration of the ending). Currently this occurs in film magazines and of course blogs. Friday day-of-release reviews are for a nonintellectual audience, who are perhaps best served by one of their own, a court jester ringleader of buffoonery, a part this fellow is well suited for.

-Editor A

dm494 said...

Dennis and blaaagh, thanks for the Gary Busey link. As always, the comments section over at YouTube manages to restore my faith in human intelligence...

As for this LaSalle thing, if LaSalle thinks 2001 is really boring, what would his reaction be to "Kings of the Road" or a Theo Angelopoulos film? Which is a way of saying that I'm struck most of all by the Americanness of his canonical film list. (It surprised me too that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is considered canonical.)

Jonathan, I agree with you that 2001's performances are fine for what they are, but why call them acting at all? Stanley Kauffmann's distinction between comic performers and comic actors is relevant here, and I think the neutral term "performer" ought to be used more often in film writing. The old joke about 2001 is that HAL is more human than the people. I have to agree with that, so it's hard--at least for me--to understand how someone can act in a role that requires neither the creation of a character nor the expression of feelings.

Campaspe said...

Fascinating threads, here and the ones you've linked, and a thoughtful, calmly reasoned post as always.

I have enjoyed reading LaSalle's musings on pre-code cinema, and I don't see a problem with a little specialization. I could knock a test on several past decades out of the park, but films made in the last 15 years ... uh, not so much. I have enormous holes in my viewing so I am reluctant to get too down on this, although of course I am not being paid by a major daily. If I were I suppose I would finally force myself to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example.

I don't think LaSalle's list reveals huge intellectual gaps--these are important movies, but not watershed ones, with the exception of 2001. But their main common feature is that each one has an incredibly devoted group of fans. I realize I am risking major flak in say this, but what strikes me in reading most of the comments is that people get really, really, really upset when you don't like 2001. One could even come away with the idea that you aren't allowed to dislike 2001. And I dislike it. Heartily. Nail me up. I will even go so far as to say that dislike of science fiction is a legitimate and defensible stance as well, although an intelligent person should be able to find something to like in almost any genre. (Also, while I still don't like it, I re-watched parts of 2001 recently and it had more virtues than I had previously admitted to myself.)

The cranky, women's-picture feminist side of me, however, does wonder whether LaSalle would be generating half this much indignation if he had confessed to hating romantic melodramas--something a lot of male critics do admit, seems to me.

And if La Salle's capsule reviews of the neglected films are short, well, he's writing to space. And I assume that like most true critics he's an enthusiast at heart -- it is always easier to write about what thrilled you than what bored you to death, I think.

Where I am absolutely and completely with you, Dennis, is the bit about feeling as though you've seen a movie because you have seen so many excerpts. Good god NO. How many films have we all seen with a brilliant sequence, surrounded by 90 more minutes of drek? or a quiet moment that gains immeasurably from what has gone before?

But here's something we aren't even addressing, or admitting to: just because you've seen a movie doesn't mean you own it in your mind, in the sense that you are familiar enough with it to discuss the film the second someone brings it up. I don't think of myself as ancient (at least I try not to) but there are movies I have seen that I frankly recall very little of.

I don't care how big a completist you are, there will always be more to see, or re-see if your brain has misplaced the movie memory. I don't have a problem with LaSalle being slow to get around to To Kill a Mockingbird (which I always loved).

P.S. But that critic who hasn't seen Kane? Fire his ass. Reminds me of the English professor in Changing Places who admits to not having read Hamlet. He gets fired too.

Chris Stangl said...

LaSalle does little more than prove himself unqualified for his own job with the "First Time" article. "No film critic has seen everything" is a naturally true statement, as obviously no human has seen everything, and therefore: Duh. No critic has seen everything, but it's fully reasonable for a professional to familiarize himself with a relatively canon of films and film authors. If LaSalle knows 2001 is "classic" in some capacity, and readily available for viewing, there's little excuse not to have made the effort. Kevin Lee is being far, far too kind; I don't see anything "reasonable" about the rationale that a film can be so oft-discussed that you don't actually need to see it. Does not compute.

The length capsule reviews we might excuse as a reality of print-oriented criticism. The dumbness, as they say, not so much. "I didn't particularly enjoy it so much as intellectually appreciate its virtues" means zilch. It's a null sentence. If you appreciated it on some level, you enjoyed it... and who cares? "All in all it's a good movie and I enjoyed it" is sub water-cooler criticism. I'm "glad I saw" every film I've ever seen, because every viewing experience assists in evolving me into a more educated, experienced viewer. I'm "glad" I saw THE BABY-SITTER'S CLUB MOVIE and MEET THE SPARTANS, but for reals, what use is such information to any reader? The notion that viewing random gags from a comedy film is equal or preferable to the experience of the entire film is kind of a disgrace. While LaSalle may feel Mel Brooks' films are a hodge podge of unrelated jokes, it is utterly necessary for him to watch the film and see if Brooks might be up to other tricks, such as, oh, say, telling a story, evoking a mood, and using a feature film structure for a reason. If he doesn't reach that conclusion, and thinks the gags are equally well served out of context on YouTube, fair enough, but only a valid conclusion after watching the film. You know, that dreadful task he deems "hardly necessary".

If there's "something to be said" about 2001, then it's LaSalle's job to, uh, say it. Otherwise he's just pointing up that he's unqualified for the task at hand, and then then refusing to even try.

All in all, as LaSalle might write, a bad article, and I'm not glad I read it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"I'm not quite sure why you're keeping tabs on newspaper critics anyway... Friday day-of-release reviews are for a nonintellectual audience, who are perhaps best served by one of their own, a court jester ringleader of buffoonery, a part this fellow is well suited for."

Editor A: You're describing the difference between criticism and reviewing, and I agree with you that there is a difference. But the thing that I was suggesting that disturbs me about La Salle's nonchalance coming from the position that he does is that, though they may be fewer in number than ever, there are weekly reviewers, for both newspapers and magazines, that rise above the level of simple, plot regurgitation and a thumbs-up (or sleeping man) assessment and provide food for thought during the task of writing day-of-release review pieces. I'm thinking of folks like David Edelstein in New York, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott and Matt Zoller Seitz in The New York Times, Stephanie Zacharek in Salon, Carina Chocano in The Los Angeles Times. These are mainstream publications, not alternative press, and they hold to a much higher standard doing essentially the same kind of work La Salle does in The San Francisco Chronicle; they do it with dignity and humor, and they don't make it easy for readers and newspaper editors to dismiss the form as irrelevant, something that unfortunately I think La Salle does when he goes all glib and dull-witted on us as he has during this little tempest.

"I realize I am risking major flak in say this, but what strikes me in reading most of the comments is that people get really, really, really upset when you don't like 2001."

Campaspe: I think there's a hint of that going here, and much more so in the film world at large. Personally, I don't really care if La Salle likes 2001, but if he's going to recognize it as an important film, at least to someone, then I think he makes himself look bad when he can't muster up words that really deal with it. And it does seem kinda unusual for him, because he can be one of those critics for whom it does seem inordinately easy to take pleasure in knocking something he doesn't like. If nothing else, then some sass and some attempt to back up your point of view, rather than these neutered sentences. I didn't really mean to call specific attention to 2001 by using it in the title of the piece, but of the five movies La Salle mentioned, it does seem to be the one more people have invested in, emotionally or intellectually, and I suppose were seeing some of that play out here.

"But here's something we aren't even addressing, or admitting to: just because you've seen a movie doesn't mean you own it in your mind, in the sense that you are familiar enough with it to discuss the film the second someone brings it up. I don't think of myself as ancient (at least I try not to) but there are movies I have seen that I frankly recall very little of.
I don't care how big a completist you are, there will always be more to see, or re-see if your brain has misplaced the movie memory."


Precisely. That's why I feel my pleasure as a viewer, and my work as a writer, will never truly be done because there will always be something else to see, or something else to be gleaned from something I've already seen, or something that needs refreshing in my mind. (I'm often shocked at how much of a movie escapes from my sieve-like brain, and sometimes how quickly.) And as far as I'm concerned, this kind of ongoing personal scholarship is a good thing. For La Salle, I wonder. His reactions to the films he considers here for the first time belie a certain boredom; perhaps that's due to the familiarity he feels has been imposed on these films for him, but I think it's his job not to succumb to that. I do think you bring up an interesting point about the kinds of movies La Salle's puts down here. Would people be as upset if it were Mrs. Miniver or Stella Dallas that were getting knocked about? And what if La Salle admitted to missing The Rules of the Game or Contempt or The Passion of Joan of Arc? First of all, would his paper even put up with a column centered on movies like that? And if they did, would La Salle be so quick to write them off with a dismissive, unimaginative couple of sentences?

(BTW, Campaspe, while we're kind of on the subject I just wanted to say, way to bust on the Oscars, and particularly that writer who used Sunrise as the butt of some dumb joke about the art of cinematography. I meant to say so in your own comments section, but since we're here, I really appreciated your whole take on the ceremony, which I suppose I enjoyed overall more than you did, but which I felt you summed up exceptionally well.)

"The length capsule reviews we might excuse as a reality of print-oriented criticism. The dumbness, as they say, not so much... The notion that viewing random gags from a comedy film is equal or preferable to the experience of the entire film is kind of a disgrace."

Chris: This is it in a nutshell for me. I don't care that La Salle may have a differing opinion of An Affair to Remember or Young Frankenstein than mine. But if you're going to admit to having never seen five fairly well-respected (if not all completely classic) movies, then shouldn't it stand to reason that you'd give your all to writing about them with as much intelligence and awareness as you could muster? I refuse to believe La Salle gave everything he could to any of the five he talks about; these write-ups are just inarguably lazy. There is an art to distilling one's comments into a delicious or bitter pill that communicates at least one's capability for thinking further on any given movie. But La Salle's blurbs are inexcusably dismissive and, as you say, Chris, ultimately meaningless. It's easy to reduce something like Young Frankenstein to something that seems less than the sum of its parts. But I think your assessment of why a critic might find value in watching the movie as a whole says far more about Brooks' motives for making Young Frankenstein and wanting it to be experienced as he made it, not diced up in sketch segments, than La Salle would ever allow himself to access. The thing I objected to most about La Salle's article was not that he admitted holes in his viewership, but that he would approach addressing those holes with such little intelligence. If he had other gaps that might include more substantive, or highly regarded or canonical films, I wonder if he would he be willing to paper over them quite so blithely.

Bob Westal said...

I will even go so far as to say that dislike of science fiction is a legitimate and defensible stance as well, although an intelligent person should be able to find something to like in almost any genre.

Well "dislike" of anything is defensible in that no one can make me like liver if I don't (and I don't!), even if can be marvelously prepared. Still, I don't think liver is in any way an inferior food and I don't think a chef who makes a liver dish is a lesser chef, just someone preparing a food I innately detest. Taste is what it is.

Still, I think a lot of what we call genres are sort of illusory. A western, for example, can at heart really be a comedy, a historical film, an action film (of course), or even a romantic melodrama. (A genre I defend as strongly as any other by the way.)

Science fiction is perhaps the most slippery genre of all. Even it's best known writers can't properly define what it is and isn't. (Most non SF fans would be surprised to learn than many purists don't consider "Star Wars" to be science fiction at all, because there is no real science in it. It's "space fantasy" or "science fantasy.")

What it comes down to is that genre labels are mostly a matter of marketing. That's the reason, and the only reason, after a certain point no one called Kurt Vonnegut a science fiction writer, but everyone called Philip K. Dick one. Vonnegut was shrewd enough to see how being labeled a science fiction writer limited his success, but gutsy enough to keep writing it anyway when he felt like it, which was most of the time. Many of Dick's books were barely SF at all, but for marketing reasons he was forced to call them that, because he had not being able to escape the ghetto the way Vonnegut had.

My personal opinion is that it's best to try to ignore labels as much as feasible. Ultimately, Duke Ellington was really on to something when he said that there were only two kinds of music, good music and bad music.

Campaspe said...

"The length capsule reviews we might excuse as a reality of print-oriented criticism. The dumbness, as they say, not so much."

and Dennis: "I refuse to believe La Salle gave everything he could to any of the five he talks about; these write-ups are just inarguably lazy."

Okay, you got me there. 2001, much as I do not like it Sam-I-am, does deserve more than a couple of tossed-off sentences, and Chris also nails the fact that LaSalle's critique is perfunctory. Some time back Jim Emerson had a Contrarian Blogathon (one of the best blogathons ever, I thought) and I decided to come clean about hating another movie that people worship, Once Upon a Time in a West. Well, the piece as I worked on it at first had a lot of snark. Mr. C, a Leone fan, politely pointed out that if I was going to go after what people think is a masterpiece, I had bloody well better be able to break it down intelligently. Length considerations aside, La Salle should have given 2001 the same consideration.

"Still, I think a lot of what we call genres are sort of illusory. A western, for example, can at heart really be a comedy, a historical film, an action film (of course), or even a romantic melodrama. (A genre I defend as strongly as any other by the way.)"

Yep, absolutely, and it's usually the genre-crossing movies that can seduce people who Don't Care for That Sort of Thing. I do hope, however, that the next time a Melo-Hating Critic (not you, Bob!) wants to throw up a few sentences about a Bette Davis or Garbo classic, the principle of treating canonical movies with a little respect, even when you hate them, will still obtain. :)

Dan E. said...

It's ok for LaSalle to have his blind spots, and even be reluctant to see some of them. I disagree with his opinion on 2001, but he is allowed that opinion. If only he could actually defend his position beyond your standard IMDB comment "This bored me. It sux!!!1!" I think that adding to one's classic viewing is more necessary for newspaper critics as it reflects on modern cinema. For instance, nobody should be able to review Magnolia without watching a whole lot of Altman. I think that in this increasingly post-modern film industry, a good education in classic cinema is absolutely necessary. Maybe if more people watched The Conformist recently, they could pick up on the similarities in structure to Michael Clayton and how that reflects on Clooney's film. Admitting gaps in one's viewing should never be something to be ashamed of if it means rectifying the situation (except that person who hasn't seen Kane. That person needs to shut his/her mouth about movies until they watch it). Sure, these may be capsule reviews, but this is the sort of thing the internet was built for. You don't need to print full reviews. Put them online to show the world that you can properly grapple with a film like 2001.

cinebeats said...

As I mentioned over at Jonathan's blog last week...

My introduction to film criticism while I was growing up came from reading the entertainment section in the local Sunday newspaper or as I called it back then "The San Francisco Chronicle's Pink Section" and unfortunately the film reviews were almost all written by LaSalle, but thankfully the Chronicle also published Joe Bob Briggs syndicated reviews as well.

Naturally Briggs lacked the subtlety of LaSalle and his "breast counts" and "body counts" tended to make me roll my eyes or giggle, but I'm thankful that I was exposed to Briggs.

On the other hand, by the time I was 12 years old I realized I had very little in common with LaSalle. His reviews lacked the depth, passion and knowledge found in Briggs’ tongue-in-cheek reviews and LaSalle’s opinions were often completely contrary to my own. He was actually a bore to read by the time I was 16 so I stopped paying attention him and none of this surprises me I’m afraid.

While I don’t expect a critic to have seen every movie made – I do expect them to write better and have some depth. I've haven't read LaSalle in over 20 years so he may have changed a bit since then, but I doubt it. The fact that he actually thought Affair to Remember was the best film of the bunch that he watched makes my head hurt.

Campaspe said...

"(except that person who hasn't seen Kane. That person needs to shut his/her mouth about movies until they watch it)."

Amen!

K., I totally agree about Joe Bob Briggs. Lord knows half the stuff he reveres I either dislike or could not even bring myself to watch, but the man knows his movies. Remember his defending I Spit on Your Grave from Roger Ebert's famous pan? I cannot imagine that there will ever be a day when I will watch I Spit on Your Grave, but it was an intelligent review all the same and I appreciated the insight into why a film lover might want to watch I Spit on Your Grave.

I'd be watching his Monstervision show and he'd throw in a mention of Fellini or something -- not in a show-off way, in a way that was totally in keeping with his jokey style. I miss the guy's regular reviews.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I completely agree about Joe Bob, and I'm really glad you brought him into the mix, Kimberly. He's a perfect example of how you can blend film knowledge and social satire.

Campaspe, I used to watch Monstervision regularly, and you're right-- when he'd drop a reference like that, there was a reason, and it always gave me a kick to see someone bridge the gap between the Fare of the Great Unwashed and films that were more generally accepted by intelligent viewers everywhere. And one other thing-- Joe Bob was, no kidding, a powerful force for keeping the very existence of the drive-in movie theater in the consciousness of the culture. He is probably directly responsible for, if not the survival of the DI into the 21st century, then at least saving a few specific theaters from the wrecking ball.

And Kimberly, I sympathize about Mick La Salle. I like Dan E.'s suggestion. If La Salle is hindered by space restraints, that's what the Internet is for. He should go there and talk about these movies at greater length rather than just blow them off after he's taken the time to bring them up in the first place. That is something about An Affair to Remember, though, isn't it? I hope your head feels better.

Alex said...

Mick LaSalle would, most likely, be a relatively serviceable critic in one of the lesser Midwest cities, or one of the lesser cities of the South.

What he most certainly is not good at is occupying the most precious film criticism real estate in San Francisco. He pays essentially no attention to the fact that SF is one of the film capitals of the US. He avoids reviewing independent product from here.

San Francisco next to New York is THE capital of avante-garde / experimental film: Bruce Baillie, Bruce Conner, Larry Jordan, Ernie Gehr and on and on. LaSalle seems to be near entirely oblivious to that (and remember that experimental movies are played in a theater in San Francisco that is literally 1 block from LaSalle's office at the SF Chronicle).