Tag Archives: critics

Talking to Schickel about Talking to Scorsese

Conversations-with-directors books can go one of two ways: Either the directors want to analyze their work, or they don’t. Those who do either obscure the films with trivial esoterica or — as is the case with Martin Scorsese, in Richard Schickel’s new book, Conversations With Scorsese — illuminate their choices with a pragmatic instinct verging on the intimate, as though they were discussing not shots and lenses but their own biography.

Click here to read my L.A. Weekly interview with Schickel about his interview with Scorsese.

Thumbing Down

Continuing to track the critics who continually track the decline of film criticism, I thought I’d say a word or two about A.O. Scott’s ineffectual apologia, “A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All,” which appeared in this week’s New York Times.

First, a bit about A.O. Scott. I like him. He backs up his assertions, doesn’t let his taste impair his judgment, and he’s pleasant to read. Yes, in my book, that makes A.O. Scott a fair critic. But I don’t think he’s a forceful one. Years from now, I suspect we’ll look on Scott as we do Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ upper middle-brow status-quo critic of the forties, fifties, and part of the sixties, a man who is remembered less for his voice than his bland, unshakable standards. He was the gold standard of standard criticism.

Now that the whole damn everything about professional film criticism is under siege, Scott has thrown down in favor of (what else?) the critic. He maintains film criticism will be just fine because, as he goes on to explain, criticism is an essential part of the human impulse to debate. He writes,

It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.

Fair enough in theory, but dead wrong in fact. If criticism weren’t a profession, then A.O. Scott would not be paid for the piece I’ve drawn from. And as one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, I think it’s safe to assume he was.

So why diminish his arrangement? Why make a play for the other side? It can only be that Scott is trying to ingratiate himself to the winning team, and to do so, he believes – wrongly, I might add – that he has to deny his own qualifications to leap aboard the blogwagon. For all of his “Everything’s going to be fine” etc., that sounds a lot like surrender to me.

He’s not alone. It has become intensely unfashionable, and even a tad offensive, to assert evidence of one’s own expertise. Long before blogging, when I was in the Liberal Arts racket, students were encouraged to “teach” their teachers in small discussion sections used in adjunct to the main lectures. The underlying idea, that the very notion of “knowledge” (or, to use the term of the day, “hegemony”) was extended to all people, no matter what their background, accomplishments, or IQ, was meant to be a very uplifting thing indeed. All are welcome! All are right! But the fallout is now upon us. A.O. Scott, who I would count among the lecturers, has abdicated to the discussion group. I wish he would go back to the podium.

Because the world of learned criticism is not a democracy. It’s a savage oligarchy.


Critical Condition

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Todd McCarthy, Variety’s leading film critic for three decades, gets fired.

Oh, no wait. Variety claims they offered him a freelance gig in recompense (which I imagine would feel like dating your ex-wife). But other sources claim not.

I don’t want to sound like the unrefined, intellectually malnourished blogger Variety would like you to think I am, so I’ll refrain from using the hostile lexicon that has earned us the epithet “unprofessional,” and instead, put my reaction to this sad, backward news in the gentlest language I can: Variety is fucked.

T0dd McCarthy wasn’t merely a valuable asset, a fringe benefit to the paper, he was the paper. His knowledge was (was? Is this a eulogy?) far reaching, his sense of the business and the technical aspect of filmmaking unmatched by contemporary film analysts, and his prose style – if you went in for varietyese – cut to the showbiz heart of it quicker than any other. I don’t want to get hyperbolic here, but I’m sure that McCarthy was to film journalism was Confucius was to the Chinese. Get in, get out. Illumination.

He left no room for sentiment. He loved film, I’ve no doubt about that, but he was a scientist first – a surgeon, really – and an aesthetician second. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the last paragraph from (what may be) his last Variety review.

Even if you know, or think you know, what’s coming at the end, the emotional undertow is hard to resist and is of a piece with the picture’s articulated philosophical position about doing all one can during one’s brief moment on earth. Gotham locations are evocatively but unostentatiously used, Marcelo Zarvos’ fine score stirs added emotional turbulence, and tech contributions are more than solid.

I wouldn’t feel the need to mention what film he was reviewing, were it not for its title – Remember Me.

When he got the news, Roger Ebert tweeted, “Variety fires Todd McCarthy and I cancel my subscription. He was my reason to read the paper.” David Poland’s headline was “RIP Variety.” Anne Thompson: “It is indeed the end of an era.”

Well, of course. Why else would a person read Variety? Certainly not for its hard-edged journalism and inside scoop. These days, everyone has scoop, and it travels at lightening speed with the click of the mouse.

The paper’s only trump card was McCarthy. But the morons let him go. Schmux nix crix.

What makes this the saddest film critic firing to date is that McCarthy was uniquely qualified in a field of unqualifieds. Where most of his peers had strong eyes and wrote nicely, few had the hard-earned means to consider motion pictures on behalf of a particular, insider market, in this case, the Hollywood community.

As the opinion epidemic spreads, making more heretics into kings with every passing day, it becomes clearer that each person, entitled to his point of view, also feels entitled to authority. They aren’t. In our own way, we can all address story and character and the various elements of narrative – a God-given impulse that stretches from the cities the farthest stix (rural areas) – but only a cinema surgeon like Todd McCarthy can tell the art bone from the tech bone, the B.O. artery from the market capillary and diagnose the patient’s various interlocking conditions accordingly.

But not anymore. The doctor is out.

Not My Opinion

Last weekend I was at UCLA’s Billy Wilder theater for a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a story which – spoiler alert – does not end happily.

True, Peary closes the film with a misty-eyed snapshot of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, arm-in-arm, leaving a cozy, small town movie theater, but it’s put there to help us look back, not forward. Looking forward is a much scarier prospect. Thomas Doherty, in his piece, “The Death of Film Criticism,” explains why:

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

Why buy the cow, in other words, when you can get the kvetch for free? So says the younger generation to the old. “But the kids don’t know the first thing about movies,” replies the golden age. (Or as Richard Schickel said, “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”) You can see where it goes from here. It’s On Golden Pond meets The Paper Chase. (Charles Laughton plays Schickel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “The Kid.”)

The septuagenarians are out of touch, says the youth. The youth is under-educated, says the septuas. Of course, these statements are meaningless reductions.

The real problem is the new generation’s misreading of film criticism’s purpose. The new technology is innocent, as is the general drift of the reading-population towards the cheapest-possible (i.e. free) format. That technology is here to stay, so the fogeys should get used to it (Roger Ebert has, and he done beautifully.) What’s torn asunder serious film criticism is the erroneous belief, held by many of the new generation, that critics are there to offer an opinion. And – to follow the logic – because everyone has an opinion, there’s no reason why this arbitrary group should be elevated to the level of special elite.

As a member of the new generation, I have a sense of why this is. Growing up post-modern products of a deconstructionist age, wherein our liberal arts colleges taught us the death of the author has rendered analysis a free-for-all, and each of our $40,000 a year opinions, which can be voiced in break-out study sections, is as uniquely perfect as a snowflake, it’s no wonder that my people are irked by the idea of intellectual authority, especially with respect to pop culture and media, our favorite pastime.

I was there when Academia became est.

Now everything is valid if you “feel” it. Now we “feel” Kubrick’s intention. We “feel” Barry Lyndon was too long. We don’t “think” it’s too long. No, not any more. The democratization of intellectual authority has done away with all that. (How do you feel about that last statement?)

But film critics aren’t there to offer their feelings. They’re there to offer insight. And while every one of us, no matter what our training, can bring thoughtfulness to the understanding of a motion picture, only a select group, who knows their history, their theory, and has a basic understanding of the realities of production, can bring serious, comprehensive intelligence. Feelings are for book groups.

I’m not getting Ayn Rand on you, so let’s be clear. Everyone’s invited. Whether you’re young or old, a blogger or a print journalist, come join the serious conversation. Just leave your opinions in the lobby. Serious film criticism is begging you.