This is one of those weeks when I’ve allowed myself to fantasize about what it might be like to have a staff. Oh, to be able to hire some eager student at a meager hourly wage to do some transcribing! And what a special privilege it would be to have an editor-proofreader to pore over the posts that I have already published here, let alone the several that I have on deck for the next several days. That 28-hour day proposal I have waiting for approval at Easter Bunny Headquarters is looking better and better.
As many of you may already be aware, there was a panel on film criticism held at UCLA and the Billy Wilder Theater this past Saturday night in conjunction with a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary For the Love of Movies: The History of American Film Criticism. I have ambivalent feelings about the film itself. On one hand, it’s inherently interesting (at least to me) to see the faces and hear the voices of so many writers with whom I am familiar only through the printed (or pixilated) word speaking on a subject that means so much to my creative life. On the other, the movie is already dated in both its statistics (when Peary locked his picture, “only” 27 film critics had lost their jobs to shrinking interests in the print media and the general economic malaise—the figure at the beginning of 2010 hovers close to 70) and by its rather nervous inquiry into the Internet. Bloggers, whose presence and activity has apparently undermined the relevance of the old guard as well as the sustainability of film criticism itself as a viable career path, are viewed with not just a little bit of trepidation and, by some of those interviewed, suspicion.
After familiarizing the audience with names like Robert H. Sherwood, Otis Ferguson, James Agee and Manny Farber, as well as a long roster of critics and reviewers, some still working, some not, the movie settles into telling the story of how film criticism was brought to the forefront of the public consciousness, or at least that part of the public that eagerly devoured movies in the ’60s and ‘70s. But it is the decades-long story of the feudal relationship between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael in the spine around which the whole of the film is built. Sarris, critic for The Village Voice and author of the seminal film book The American Cinema, helped to solidify notions of the auteur theory inspired by the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema for American film scholars and students. When California-born Pauline Kael, who began her professional immersion in film as a Berkeley rep house programmer, took Sarris’s theory to task in an infamous piece entitled “Circles and Squares,” the upstart female made her own mark, eventually developing a colloquial, jazzy style of prose that would propel her to the height of visibility and critical influence. Of course, both critics had their followers—or sycophantic lapdogs, if you believe the conventional wisdom re the so-called “Paulettes” (none of whom are present on camera to address the issue).
"Sarrisites” on the other hand, among whose number Peary counts himself, are represented by Richard Corliss, who coined the term “Paulette,” and others, including Sarris himself and his wife, the superb writer and influential feminist critic Molly Haskell. Peary claims evenhandedness in his treatment of Kael in the movie, and the overt evidence in the movie suggests that he has achieved this goal. But subtleties in the editorial choices and the writing also suggest that Peary believes there may have been something to Kael’s reputation as unduly harsh and mean-spirited, and her backing of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese, while accented even by Sarris on camera as forward-thinking and perceptive in the early going, is also held up for scrutiny as a possibly calculated move to separate her interests from those that would have stereotypically be ascribed to other female writers during that time.
At any rate, the Kael-Sarris debate, while it is undoubtedly entertaining to revisit, and while people’s feelings about these two still tend to run pretty strong, is simply one element of the context in which to place the loose end of film criticism’s future which is, ostensibly (and despite the historical focus reflected in the title), the film’s most compelling subject. The film deals in more than its share of nostalgia for the good old days (roughly, the 1960s up through the beginning of the Reagan era 1980s), but it ends up befuddled by the implications of the Internet age on what’s next for film criticism, reflecting uncertainty that was certainly shared by the august panel of print film critics gathered to talk about the movie and the larger subject at hand on the Billy Wilder stage after the lights came up on Saturday night. Peary’s film, as any piece of reportage that must at some point be locked into a finite shape in order to be distributed and seen by an audience would be, reflects only part of an ever-evolving story which may or may not have a happy ending where its central subject is concerned.
It’s not that Peary and his impressive roster of interviewees have nothing to fear from the encroachment of the Internet—there are plenty of virtual implications toward this journalistic art form, many of them seeming to take the form of a threat, that are unlikely to be sorted out in the near future. But there were plenty of generalizations about the integrity of the writing and attitude of most bloggers that went unchallenged on Saturday (despite moderator Anne Thompson’s valiant efforts), primarily the widely accepted notion that one’s ability to post instantly necessarily implies that one’s research and writing is similarly cavalier and hasty. Though I don’t doubt that many bloggers create their online journals in just such a way— a piece dashed off the top of the blogger’s head is pretty easily identifiable in its ragged disarray, use of language and presence of copious typos—many of us actually create our posts with a sense of structure and awareness of style in a word processing format first, all the better for editing, spell-checking and decreasing the chance that the words will suddenly disappear in an unexpected computer burp. And it is true that finding a voice on the Internet that is worthy of a reader’s trust may be a more difficult challenge, given the vast array of writing available. But it is also true that bad writing will out itself in a fairly rapid fashion. Even so, some still find it easier to accept a high-profile figure like Harry Knowles as the standard-bearer for fear and distrust of the phenomenon of film blogging than to dig around in the dirt in search of jewels.
Some writers, like John Powers, former film editor of the L.A. Weekly and currently the film critic for Vogue magazine, have tendered their tentative outlook on the economic implications of the Internet for their chosen profession with an awareness that despite there being no viable model for making a living writing criticism on the Internet, there’s little indication that the ratio of good writing to bad on the Internet is actually much different than it was for writers plying their trade in print outlets during the “golden age of movies” in the 1970s. In other words, it’s still not the medium as much as it is the message. Powers’ most trenchant observation—it may have been the highlight of the panel as far as revelatory admissions went—was that, rather than trotting out the reactionary response to bloggers in general, it may be time for professional film critics to recognize that working and making good money writing about films during a time—those much-admired ‘60s and ‘70s—in which the audience was receptive to thoughtful consideration and analysis, was an aberration, a bubble of experience not shared by the likes of James Agee, Otis Ferguson or Manny Farber. The downsizing of critical influence, at a time when there are more (uncompensated) voices chiming in with thoughtful analysis and disposable opinion than ever before, may itself be a return to the norm rather than a simple cultural regression.
Another cool head on the panel, Peter Rainer, currently the film critic for The Christian Science Monitor, seconded Powers’ observation about the truism that bad writers existed right alongside the good ones back in film criticism’s glory days. But he actually took it a step further when he asserted that there are probably more good writers writing film criticism and reviews now than there were in the 1970s. It’s just that many of these writers are not receiving compensation for their efforts, and are unlikely to in the future, and those seeking out the quality must sort through and endure the voluminous quantity of sub-par stuff in order to evaluate and enjoy the voices that deserve to be heard. And one could sense that David Sterritt, Rainer’s predecessor at The Christian Science Monitor, was in the neighborhood of taking a more accepting view of the possibility that vital writing is coming from this arena, and he was the one most willing to engage moderator Anne Thompson’s attempts to steer the conversation in the direction of consideration of online writing as a new, unresolved paradigm which has already made its mark on the way movies are perceived.
The only member of the panel who seemed to have any personal experience in blogging, Ella Taylor, late of the L..A. Weekly and currently film critic for Village Voice Media and NPR, expressed resistance to the format which was worn down when she ended up blogging from the Sundance Film Festival. I’m sure Taylor would agree that her experience writing on her blog is quite different than her process for writing reviews—she revealed that her posts were very much the kind of quick considered journalistic entries used to help keep her readers up to date on daily festival happenings, which I would imagine was a much looser approach than she would normally take when formulating her responses to a film in a deadline situation. The conclusion that keeps being arrived at by those who decry blogging’s deficiencies is that the majority of the writing is of this loose-limbed ilk, or perhaps of an even more superficial variety. (Again, just because one has the capability of posting quickly and immediately does not necessarily mean that the writing in that quickly posted piece was composed with equal haste.)
But few established critics like Taylor are introduced to blogging as much more that an extension of their regular reviewing responsibilities. Blogging is looked upon as a necessary way to reach out to an online community of readers that is abandoning the feel of newsprint on their fingers at an alarming rate. Really, if I were an established film critic, would I not on some level resent the Internet if all it chiefly meant to me was extra work and no bump in salary? Perhaps. But coming from another angle, for every film critic who seems to have invented their own place in cyberspace and found ways to do good work in expressing their thoughts and encouraging the interconnectivity of the community on online critics, sometimes extending their own life as a critic after losing their paying gig, there seems to be at least two sporting at least a degree of discomfort with the very idea of Internet-based film criticism. Some of this resistance is technology-based, and some of it, as it turns out, runs a little closer to an arrogant sense of entitlement.
Thompson’s civility as moderator came under constant challenge by the stubborn, implacable indifference of Richard Schickel who, as Stephen Saito rightly observed in his account of the evening for IFC.com, took center stage both literally and figuratively, as he continually tried to commandeer the panel and turn it into a soapbox for his own brand of world-weary one-liners and cynical indifference toward film criticism itself. His first comment about Peary’s film, in which he decried the “surpassing ignorance” of all Internet film writing he has encountered, was one of dismay at the parade of interviewees waxing on about their trade. "Watching all these kind of earnest people discussing the art or whatever the hell it is of criticism, all that, it just made me so sad. You mean they have nothing else to do?" he asked with characteristic sarcasm. "I don't know honestly the function of reviewing anything," he went on to proclaim, a position that has to be taken as at least curious given his 43-year career as a critic.
Gerald Peary, in responding to Saito’s piece, took time to express surprise that anyone in the audience would find this admission shocking or take it literally. “What has the gentleman been doing for forty years except writing (film criticism)? He might hate doing it now, but is he really saying he wasted four decades of his life?” Given the degree of puckered sourness with which Schickel approached any attempt to discuss the art of film criticism, or even the notion that it might be an art at all, over the course of the evening, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw such a conclusion. (Schickel can afford this kind of curdled 20/20 hindsight: it comes, of course, with a couple of new books in the pipe atop the peaks of a newfound career as a Clint Eastwood Attachment, the natural extension of his background as a starry-eyed biographer.)
The man seemed undaunted even when caught in a contradiction of his own construction. After his snappy line in the movie about the “surpassing ignorance” of writers on the Internet (accompanied by the requisite snide and knowing chuckle), it would seem that Schickel would be a veritable font of information as to the names of the worst offenders. Alas, it seems not so. When asked by Thompson if ever reads online criticism, an activity he would seem to have plenty of experience with given his expressed attitude toward it, he responded with a haughty, “No! Why would you do that? I don’t read many reviews. I never did.” But before the audience could even begin to chew on the gristle of that fatuous statement, Schickel was already moving on to a certain well-known DIY Internet figure. “I'm not going to go around looking for Harry Knowles! I mean, look at that person! Why would anybody just looking at him pay the slightest attention to anything he said? He's a gross human being." Of course, if an Internet writer stooped this low, Schickel would be right there to point it out as an example of the deficiencies of bloggers (if he bothered to read them, that is...) But perhaps even more disturbing than Schickel’s rant was the giant laughs it was getting from the audience at the Billy Wilder, presumably gathered for a serious discussion but all too willing to groove on some cheap shots at the expense of an easy target like Knowles who, regardless of what you may think of his life’s work, hardly seems to warrant this kind of sneering contempt. (My thanks to Peter Rainer who fought the volume of the guffaws long enough to suggest to Schickel that his comments were inappropriate.)
And Schickel had plenty of bile left to spew whenever the name Pauline Kael came up. “Who wants to talk about Pauline?” he growled sarcastically at one point, and I immediately applauded, as if to say “I do!” (Of course I immediately regretted it for fear that the applause would be interpreted as support for his boorish question.) Schickel’s ire for this woman exists on some unplumbable personal level, and as far as I’m concerned it should stay unplumbed. It’s pretty easy (and tempting, and amusing) to speculate as to the hard time she must have given this fella while they both occupied the same screening rooms and critics groups meetings in New York City, and I would be the last to suggest that Kael might not have been a pain in the ass on occasion. But I find it difficult to believe that she would even display the lack of kindness and respect that Schickel wallowed in at the Billy Wilder on Saturday night. That display truly was a pain in the ass.
While others on the panel may have also had mixed feelings for Kael and her influence, the expressions of such were usually tempered at least with respect for her as a writer, and Peter Rainer, unable to get in a word edge-wise on stage, expressed to me afterward the esteem with which he still regards Kael. Had Schickel, whose claims never to have loved movies I cannot help but take at face value, ever written anything as good as Kael's weakest paragraph, I might be able to afford him a similar level of respect. But Schickel's bile and his indifference to the profession that sustained him for 43 years makes him the last person whose word on the future of film criticism I would take at all seriously.
As it happens, much has been made of the fact that this panel was better equipped to discuss the history of film criticism as its own art form than it was to discuss the current and future impact of the practice, and some have even taken Thompson to task for that one-sidedness. The fact is, Thompson did not choose the panelists and has expressed dismay that the members of the online film writing community she suggested to UCLA were not available to appear. As moderator, one of the things she did best was to try to navigate the choppy waters back toward the discussion of the white elephant of the Internet, even when she had to sail against the hot, blustery wind generated by the imperious Schickel, whose slouching posture made it all too easy for him to literally look down his nose as it shouted “above it all” in the clearest possible body language.
In an attempt to get at least one voice from that online writing community heard, Thompson, as Stephen Saito accurately observed, prodded me from the stage and eventually directed a microphone into my hands. My comments, which (almost) turned out to be the final word of the evening, were tempered by my nervousness at speaking not only to this esteemed panel and this audience, but also to some degree for the group of blogging film writers and journalists on larger Internet sites whose point of view was not the main focus of the panel’s attention. I began by expressing my increased distaste for the word “blog,” the ugly phonetics of which seem to naturally lend themselves to easy condescension. But a blogger I am, and I went on to suggest that despite the general feeling on the panel that what bloggers do amounts to an unedited, badly spelled and proofread stream of consciousness, there’s a big difference between that kind of writing and what I and my associates in the blogosphere do to take writing seriously. I expressed gratitude to blogger/critics like Jim Emerson and Jonathan Rosenbaum who have made their online work accessible and who have never hesitated to engage in debate with me and others based solely on our status as amateur Internet film writers.
And finally, I took the opportunity to publicly express my gratitude for Pauline Kael, without whom I believe I would have never learned how to argue the merits of a film, much less ever written a worthwhile word about the movies. Unfortunately, my sentiments ultimately served to provide fodder for Schickel’s final rim shot. “I take it you never met her,” he shot back at me. And I’m sure he never heard my own half-muttered wise-ass retort (the microphone was, I think, long gone by then) over the laughter of the audience, delighted at one last bitter bon mot from our very own Addison DeWitt, and Thompson’s honorable attempt to finally put the evening’s panel to bed.
One of the week’s many chores is a transcript of the entire panel discussion last Saturday night at the Billy Wilder Theater, and when I finish it I will post it for your enjoyment, erudition and possible frustration. (If I’d been able to wrap up that task, this piece would have featured many more juicy quotes.) Until then, I point you again to Stephen Saito's piece detailing the Saturday evening film critics panel, "Nothing Else to Do?" on IFC.com, as well as Todd Gilchrist’s post-panel piece at Cinematical, an unrelated article by Thomas Doherty entitled ”The Death of Film Criticism”, which reflects the prevailing anti-blogging bent of many of the comments heard at the Billy Wilder (read the comments for the antidote), and finally Chuck Tryon’s excellent response to Doherty entitled ”Film Criticism is Dead (Again)”. Then there's my own rather more detailed piece "In Defense of the Perils of Pauline" from February 2008.
Enough sourness! Some meaningless Oscar talk next! (No chance for sourness there, eh?)