Before she became Pauline Kael, before she was much more than a wonderful surprise occasionally encountered in obscure journals, before she was canonized as America’s best critic of film, Pauline Kael took an ax to the work of Andrew Sarris and temporarily left it in splinters. The year was 1963, and Miss Kael, a Californian still resident on the West Coast, was pretty much a stranger to Sarris, a New York intellectual with perhaps even fewer readers than she. In any event, he awoke one day to find himself a scandal, oh, a mini-scandal sure, but only imagine what it means for a serious writer who has labored hardly noticed for years to be savaged at length, even in Film Quarterly, to be cast in the villain’s mold so effectively that Dwight Macdonald, then of Esquire, joins the attack. Sarris, whose free-lance earnings as a critic left him annually well below the poverty level, whose collected works could fit into his vest pocket, whose mother nagged at him for his tardy discovery of a doomed trade—no one went to the movies anymore— Sarris, assailed as an ogre, a Godzilla, mind you, by so distinguished a figure as Macdonald. His friends were awed. Sarris was in a state. How could Kael do this to him? Having branded his views not only silly but dangerous, she had made Sarris notorious before he’d even had the chance to be rich and famous. He has never quite forgiven her.
Celebrity of sorts descended on the two of them shortly thereafter. Kael, a small, pleasant-looking, intense woman with a glistening sensibility, produced a best-selling collection, I Lost It at the Movies, was drawn East by job offers and in 1968 settled into The New Yorker, where she has ever since reviewed films for six months of each year. Sarris, a large, soft, hearty man with a unique quality for a film critic—a functioning capacity for self-mockery—became the movie man at The Village Voice. He, too, fashioned books. One of them was The American Cinema, an extension and elaboration of the idea that had gotten him into such terrible trouble with Kael. It is, of course, the standard text on the Sarrisite auteur theory of film making and a major influence on serious students of the pictures.
In the years since the great Kael-Sarris encounter, something altogether odd happened to the business of professional moviegoing. The semi-anonymous drone scrawling semi-legible notes in the dark became a figure of glamour; movie reviewer was transformed into supercritic, still very often scrawling semi-legible notes in the dark. (Better to curse the unreadable word than light a pen. Light pens are so suburban, one hears from Vincent Canby of The New York Times, like wearing a chef’s toque to barbecue in the backyard.) Critics were courted, wined and dined, invited to garland television talk shows, paid fine fees on the lecture circuit, collected in hard and soft covers and given university professorships. Just the other day, as film history flies, only foreign films—mostly French and Russian, plus an occasional, very occasional, American production with a socially significant theme —deserved serious attention. As the narrator in E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel reminds us about growing up a left-wing intellectual in the Forties, “If you could recognize a Humphrey Bogart movie for the cheap trash it was, you had culture.” Within the decade, a mass medium had become mass art. Movies, Hollywood movies, were at last respectable and amenable to honorable academic pursuit. There are seven hundred ninety-one American universities offering courses on film ; most of the students, the kids who used to plan to be movie stars or write best-selling novels, now seem to yearn only to be critics. At Cosmopolitan, critic Liz Smith, tired of answering queries about how to get into the field, now sends out a form letter full of kindly advice and mild discouragement.
It’s not a bad life if you like going to the pictures a lot, enjoy seeing them in the daytime and can get used to the fawning. Movie publicists are as disparate and as various as critics; some of them are more nervous than others. Exploring the critic trade last year, I thought it might be useful to attend a few daytime screenings. It was easy enough to arrange, except with Warner Bros., whose people fretted about it for a bit and then decided it could not be allowed. First of all, they would have to tell the critics why I was there; secondly, this detail “would alter the normal conditions of the screening.”
Let me tell you about the normal conditions of a screening. They are nice. They do not include a $3.50 admission fee, waiting on line outside in the wet or getting pushed around by the neofascists who seem to dominate the usher trade in first-run houses of New York. Screening rooms are cozy. Smoking is allowed, ashtrays are provided. There are seldom more than a couple dozen soft reclining seats, in good repair. The print, the projection and the sound are all of a superior quality rarely found in movie houses. None of this insures perfect screening-room deportment. Legend abounds. There is a critic who takes tiny naps. Sometimes Penelope Gilliatt, the other half of the New Yorker year, is late. Sometimes Pauline Kael exclaims, “Oh, my God,” in genuine dismay at conspicuous displays of violence. Once, Judith Crist, late of New York magazine, left early, explaining after several reels of a cloying epic that “my family has a history of diabetes.” Once, John Simon, newly of New York magazine, stumbled in the dark and made a dead fall into the aisle; not one person moved to help, and someone giggled.
These gatherings are distinguished as much by their silences as by their exchanges. Crist does not acknowledge Simon or Rex Reed. Kael also does not talk to Simon. He would like to talk to Kael and cannot understand her reserve. (Mind you, he has only mentioned that Barbra Streisand is “unpronouncedly ugly” and merely observed that Kael deeply admired Streisand in Hello, Dolly! and simply explained that Streisand’s success “hinges on the number of homely women who can identify themselves with her,” and he can’t imagine why he should be snubbed.) In truth, what is mostly to be heard at critics’ screenings is the swish swish swish of notebook pages being hastily turned and hearty laughs when the comedy is funny. When it is all over, critics cluster around the elevators, clearing their throats and talking about the weather. It’s poor form to exchange opinions about a movie after a screening. It’s also foolish. Why risk a good line in the presence of rivals?
Despite this convention, which is generally but not universally honored, movie publicists worry incessantly about critics influencing each other. They do talk, they do exchange opinions sometimes, they even get into arguments on street corners after screenings. What is strange is that the industry assumes that one reviewer is going to argue another out of approval rather than into appreciation. This position represents the industry’s conspiracy theory of reviewing, an attitude that peaked a few years ago when the Cinerama crowd insisted for a while that only one critic at a time might see a production. The arrangement did not please everyone, but it made a nice present for Rex Reed. He likes the one-to-one relationship between him and the screen.
It would be hard to find another set of people so unapologetic about their egomania.
Most films begin their lives in New York and many of the people who review them for major publications are based there. They share a community of interests without comprising a community; it’s more like a Democratic convention slivered into blocs and wings of critics who enjoy their disagreements and critics who actually are friends. The paranoia-inducing event of the decade must have been the 1969 wedding of Sarris to The Voice’s second-string critic, Molly Haskell, with Vincent Canby as best man and Roger Greenspun, soon to become the Times’s second-string critic, as usher—a veritable nest of auteurists. Canby is a good friend of Gilliatt, who is barely on nodding terms with her New Yorker cotenant, Kael. Kael’s friendship is sort of extended to David Denby, a former protégé who was The Atlantic magazine critic for a while. He socializes with his generation of critics—Jay Cocks of Time, Frank Rich of the New York Post. They dine together; they even talk about movies.
Various as their tastes may be, the most successful critics have certain qualities in common. There is absolute self-confidence. It would be hard to find another set of people so unapologetic about their egomania. Another link is fanatic pleasure in the medium. They see movies all the time. Molly Haskell, an early retirer, goes to sleep at ten-thirty p.m., sometimes setting the alarm for one-thirty a.m. to catch a late, late movie. In high season, Jay Cocks has five or six screenings a week, will take in a few old movies at revival houses and sit through a couple of films on TV, averaging a dozen a week. Even as you and I, they cry at movies, but rather more distrustfully. Some of them do ten-best lists. They know ten-best lists are dumb, but editors expect them.
They are, of course, serious about what they do. Pauline Kael, heard discussing the craft at a public forum, was fervent and unnervingly humorless. She spoke of “commitment to film” about the way one would expect a young seminarian to talk of dedication to God. In the trade, there is some dispute about whether a movie should be seen more than once before it is reviewed; Richard Schickel of Time won’t because he feels he attends as a surrogate for the average moviegoer who doesn’t. But many of them go back several times to sit through dense or difficult or important works (The Passenger, Nashville); almost all of them will read or reread books on which some movies are based (The Day of the Locust, The Great Gatsby) and some of them revise interminably in agonies of effort to strike just the right note of omniscience. There are harrowing little questions. Should you overlook your reservations about a nice, deserving little movie to bring it a good crowd? Should you, if you are Canby, remind the reader you’re a fool for Truffaut? Should you tone down approval of certain foreign films to avoid damaging them? Nora Sayre eventually came to do just that during the eighteen months she spent as a Times second stringer. Overpraise, she concluded, can kill a good but modest film. The first wave of paying customers passes the word to friends that it’s not War and Peace.
It’s a compact little world and it doesn’t take much to shake it. Early in 1975, Robert Altman came to New York with a rough cut of Nashville. He likes to do his final cuts on the basis of audience response, and his favorite audiences for such purposes are friends, among them critics. Crist went to see it; so did Kael. And fourteen weeks before the opening, a couple of months before most critics would get to see Nashville, Miss Kael wrote a review—not just a review but an appreciation throbbing with hyperbole. Do you know what happens when one critic, writing that far in advance, suggests that a movie hovers around the masterpiece class? All the others have to forcibly restrain themselves from starting their reviews, “Although Nashville is not a masterpiece. . . .” The unhappiness Miss Kael’s piece occasioned, the snapping displeasure! Most of the critics took care not to read it, hoping to avoid both its alienating and its bandwagon effects. Canby, a mild, urbane man, read it and in uncharacteristic fury composed a sardonic Sunday piece, parodying Kael’s style and proposing that if she were going to review rough cuts, why not notices based on scripts or treatments or press releases? Canby knew quite well that trade gossip would have him doing it for Gilliatt—Nashville’s opening fell in her New Yorker time. “To hell with it,” he told himself. He was angry on his own behalf, angry that Kael had done a review so high on the movie, so free of reservations that it seemed calculated to intimidate the rest of the tribe. Months later, Miss Kael explained on a public occasion that after she had seen Nashville nothing else seemed worth writing about, and her editor said go ahead. Months later, on her own time, Miss Gilliatt also did a review, an admiring but rather calmer appraisal of the film. Months later, Canby reported the Kael piece had incited an enormous amount of mail. It was depressing. When Miss Kael is not jumping release times, Canby thinks a lot of her; most of the letters he got congratulated him for giving her the business.
The critical bunch assembles several times a year for grand occasions. These include the selection and presentation of awards for the New York Film Critics Circle and the somewhat newer National Society of Film Critics. It’s hard to understand why there must be two groups, since most of the major critics belong to both. Paul Zimmerman, formerly a Newsweek movie critic, has argued persuasively that “they formed a second society to give an award every year to Ingmar Bergman and, in the years when he didn’t have a picture, to Buñuel.” John Simon, an unyielding practitioner of ritual highbrowism, departed from the National Society several years ago when membership was voted to a sizable group of new people, among them Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times. (“A nonentity,” Simon grumped.) In 1974, membership was finally conferred on Rex Reed, the syndicated film columnist at the New York Daily News. (No, he had not been blackballed previously, you can’t be blackballed from the National Society. He had merely not been voted in before.) Reed got to his first meeting at the Algonquin hotel and could not believe his eyes. It was a zoo. While the New York critics had proceeded with decorum and dispatch, the national group indulged in a ceremony that required each member’s selection for each category to be read aloud. The hooting and the raucous cheering that punctuated the reading, the moaning and the groaning and the mock fainting. Reed, no shrinking violet, sat through that session shrinking—never said a word. There were other bad vibes. “I don’t know who had what job somebody else at one time wanted and felt entitled to,” said Nora Sayre, “but you could feel the hostility in the room.”
“We have made monsters out of the critics by flattering them with quote ads,” one industry man complained.
It’s a narrowing field and to someone who doesn’t want to write about anything but movies, the loss of a serious job can be a calamity. Zimmerman used to divide the fraternity into lifers and transients; he is a funny, sardonic man in his middle thirties and he’s crazy about pictures, but Zimmerman would have been a transient even if he had reviewed them for life. (This possibility was eliminated a few months ago, when Newsweek transferred him to the Books section.) Judith Crist is not only a lifer but a light industry. Not too long ago, she had the Today show on TV, New York, TV Guide, a professorship at Columbia University and thriving weekends as hostess of the highly successful Tarrytown film seminars. Even when she lost the Today show to Gene Shalit, it was not catastrophic; the New York slot was a clout position.
Suddenly last summer she was gone from the magazine, left without a major platform from which to review first-run films since she had become the New York Herald Tribune’s critic a dozen years before. Judith Crist, with her zippy prose and her consumer-service compulsion to review everything and her tendency to like almost everything, fired, replaced by the magazine’s theater critic, John Simon, who only a few minutes before had lost his Esquire movie-reviewing slot and who was guaranteed to hate ninety percent of whatever turned up on the screen in any season. For years, Simon had traveled the talk-show route, badmouthing Crist up and down the dial, lusting for her job. When rumors of the change first seeped out, the news struck the industry like a heart seizure. All over town last June publicist called publicist. Have you heard? Is it true? What will it mean? Is all this nervousness worth it?
Interestingly, far less anxiety was exhibited about another change that took place around the same time. The New York Post, making Archer Winsten second stringer, had given the primary reviewing job to Frank Rich. Winsten was seventy and had written his first review for the paper in 1936; Rich was twenty-six, a bright, rising star out of Harvard, who had started writing film criticism professionally only two years earlier at New Times. Like Simon, he was considered a tough critic but with an important distinction: the feeling was that he cared about movies as it was felt Crist cared about movies. She is generally well liked by the industry and most people were pleased that by the fall she had found a new place from which to do her caring. Hollis Alpert left the Saturday Review for a different kind of job, and Mrs. Crist became its critic. A few months later she signed on at Playgirl, too. Surely, Simon can argue that he, too, is an engaged spectator at movies. Anyone who took the trouble to examine a collection of his reviews from his days at The New Leader would realize that it’s not that he likes movies less than other critics but that his character compels him to flagrant enjoyment of failure. Reading steadily through several years of Simon is like spending a leisurely afternoon watching flies being parted from their wings. I suppose he appeals to the baser instincts in all of us.
“I have never written a story that was colored by the hotel accommodations I had or how many flowers were in the room when I got there,” says Rex Reed.
One reason for the industry’s dismay over the loss of Crist was the quote ad, a promotion method almost everybody claims to deplore. Crist raves get heavy play on the entertainment pages. It is fairly typical of the industry that the custom of festooning movie ads with fancy quotes from reviews persists, even though there is a profound suspicion that it has minimal impact on the box office and more impact than is good for them on the critics. “We have made monsters out of the critics by flattering them with quote ads,” one industry man complained. In the years before TV, before the customers became choosy and before the money ran out for superhypes, promotion was simpler. A studio could accomplish a lot by promising a cast of thousands or a forbidden subject never before brought to the silver screen in such frank detail, or a swell disaster, or a socko star. As a matter of fact, these are still good inducements. There are industry people skilled in the arts of exploitation who can argue persuasively that what finally grows “legs” on many movies—gives them good runs—is word of mouth.
Even so, desperate efforts are made to spice the ads for weekend papers. Sometimes, an unhappy press agent will be set to work at midweek telephoning reviewers to ask, Did you like the movie? Could we have an advance copy of your review? Most critics say no. Most of them claim to hate turning up in ads. If it doesn’t make the critic seem like an auxiliary to the industry, it certainly shortens the distance between the two points. Moreover, even when the quote is reasonably accurate, it always appears with more exclamation points than a prudent writer is likely to use in a lifetime. “Hugely appealing!” Vincent Canby, N.Y. Times. “A smash!” Vincent Canby, N.Y. Times. Canby, a suffering writer who spends hours revising opening paragraphs, can’t stand it. Joseph Gelmis of Newsday becomes a Scrooge with quotable adjectives, doling them out parsimoniously to avoid feeding the adman. The most consistently quoted critic, and small wonder, is Bob Salmaggi, who sees movies for WINS, a New York radio station, and cares memorably about almost everything in sprightly prose: Little Big Man is a “Larrupin’ Lalapalooza,” or “Wow!!! and Wow Again !!! Jaws Is Jim-Dandy!”
There are other blandishments to the business. Junkets can be had to foreign parts; most critics in New York won’t accept them. Rex Reed will and so what? “I have never written a story that was colored by the hotel accommodations I had or how many flowers were in the room when I got there,” he says. Working trips to Hollywood invite the usual inducements to relaxation: starlet services are available, so is dope. Once, on the West Coast, Judy Crist was given to understand that, should she be interested—and she was not—male companionship would be provided. Once, in Los Angeles, Joe Gelmis was interviewing a studio executive when the barber and the shoeshine man arrived. “Take a shine, kid,” said the tycoon. At that moment, Gelmis understood the casual temptations of the trade.
Some critics sell film scripts, and that is a constant source of controversy, suggesting as it does conflicts of interest even when strenuous efforts are made to avoid the appearance of them. Zimmerman, who has sold several as yet unproduced projects, veered between a policy of not reviewing the works of possible collaborators and one of absolute self-confidence in his ability to reach balanced judgments, uncompromised by his business relationships. Richard Schickel, who has sold some movie treatments and collaborated on one speculative venture, insists it’s easy enough to determine whether a moviemaker in quest of script services thinks he’s buying a screenplay or a critic. A lot of trouble can be saved by warning the buyer, “Look, you understand I won’t be reviewing your movies for the next couple of years, don’t you?”
If anything is truly corrupting in this trade, it is likely to be the friendship of the people who make movies. They come East with bright new trinkets to sell and want to have lunch with the people who will be judging the goods. Some critics avoid those encounters completely. Sarris resists doing interviews, resists breaking bread. What would he ask anyway, given his tendency to examine underlying tensions in films that the maker may be blind to? What would he say to Fritz Lang, he wonders, producing his favorite mock-Teutonic accent? “Fritz, you’re a dirty old man, aren’t you? Why do you have this streak of voyeurism in you?” Besides reviewing movies, Zimmerman reported on them and he considered socializing the fun part of the job even when the pleasure caused pain. Hollywood people are glamorous and they are involved in exciting things. You meet them and like them and want them to like you. Zimmerman had a terrible time dealing with Night Moves, Arthur Penn’s interesting private-eye failure. Arthur Penn is a smart, graceful, lovely man. Zimmerman wound up uncomfortably writing a rap on the movie.
At its worst, the price of mingling is loss of discrimination, and the most obvious example of this is Judith Crist and her Tarrytown Film Weekends. A fee of $110 provides two nights at a pleasant country place, five gourmet meals and six movies, usually past works and a forthcoming production of the visiting star or director. From fall through spring, there are six to eight of them; a recent season included Sidney Lumet, Stanley Donen, John Schlesinger, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Kirk Douglas and Raquel Welch. Mrs. Crist invites people whose work she admires; she tries to see and review their new productions before the weekend appearance, but that is not always possible. A year’s worth of Crist reviews, examined in the light of the Tarrytown weekends, is instructive reading. For Tarrytown visitors, notices range from dithering for a pretty good movie to high flattery for an outright failure: “To call [Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust] the finest film of the past several years is to belittle it.” Nichols’ The Fortune is “a glittery concoction, its cachet as glamorous as its execution is talented and its aspiration adventurous.” Donen’s The Little Prince captured “the ineffable loveliness of a child’s laughter.” Not for a moment do I imagine these to have been conscious payoff. Crist has succumbed, with consequent loss of credibility, to the impulse Zimmerman had to struggle to master, the impulse to be nice to such nice people.
To the outsider, this array of talents and intelligences represents something real and palpable in terms of influence. It is real. And then again it isn’t. Critics enjoy stressing the illusory nature of their impact: look at Rollerball; all of us hated it, and it’s cleaning up. Look at Badlands; many of us praised it and it died. Everyone assumes vast power is vested with the Timesman. Canby, the Timesman, is given to quoting his colleague Clive Barnes, the theater critic, who once said that if a Barbary ape were hired to review for the paper, the various entertainment industries would assiduously go right on quoting The Times without noticing the substitution.
(A tame pliable Barbary ape with tame predictable responses might have worked out better than Roger Greenspun did. Greenspun, a Times second stringer for something over four years, was a confusing figure—a highbrow with tastes regarded by middlebrows as lowbrow. His editors worried needlessly that he might automatically reject Hollywood movies. When he was about to be hired in 1969, Times editor Arthur Gelb inquired: “You don’t have standards, do you?”)
By general agreement, a wave of praise can affect a marginal film on the order of Mean Streets, which Warner Bros. didn’t understand and nearly dumped. Big-star movies (Redford, Streisand) will generate big trade without the critics; so will pictures with an intensive hype (The Great Gatsby). But the East Coast critics can keep a director alive through a series of box-office flops. Until Nashville, none of Robert Altman’s productions after M*A*S*H was a big hit. But he had captured the respect of most New York critics as an interesting and innovative director and he was able to keep working, to get backing, in some part, at least, on the basis of their strong support.
In any event, besides profit, most Hollywood people need praise. A film maker who can walk into the Polo Lounge the day after a New York opening and announce, “Canby loved us,” has not only a lever to finance the next deal but visible proof of his artistry. The week of the opening, Hollywood calls the New York office to learn, first, what Canby said, then Crist, then Kael, Cocks and Zimmerman. The next question is, How many stars? The home office isn’t interested in who reviewed the movie for the Daily News (it should be noted that Reed, an extra added attraction at the paper, doesn’t do stars), but it’s important to know whether there can be * * * or * * * * for the movie ad.
Clearly, somebody out there cares, and all that caring can be money in the bank. There are comfortable livings to be made from establishing a reputation as a critic these days. Of course, nobody is in Reed’s class. What with top-price lecture bookings, the syndication of one of the two pieces he does each week for the News and a collection of interviews, Reed says he made $150,000 one recent year. But then Reed is a star. Cybill Shepherd comes to town to work on a film and calls up to chat, even though he has not been kind to her last picture. When he lectures at the University of Alabama, the only accommodation big enough for the crowd is the football stadium. In the lobby of the Hotel Leningrad, where he is about to discover the real story behind the binational filming of The Blue Bird, he is spotted by squealing American girls on a Russian tour and pursued for his autograph. It has all been done on charm, nerve, hard work and a gift for the outrageous. Actually, it’s not so much a gift as a compulsion. Reed promises himself every time that he won’t say anything to hurt anybody. Then, here he is on The Merv Griffin Show, and he can’t help himself. He allows as how critics are dumb and boring; next thing you know, his hostility to the works of Robert Altman surfaces, and he finds himself telling the fans that nobody has been going to see Nashville, a statement that happens to be a distance from accuracy. Outrageous.
The holy trinity of popular film criticism is composed of Sarris, Kael and Simon—the first two because they profoundly influence the way many of us see movies, Simon because he embodies the William F. Buckley Jr. school of movie reviewing, an approach appreciated by people who expect movies to be literary and understand a critic who often reviews them as if they were novels. In 1972, Variety assembled a batch of statistics and rated the critics on the basis of films liked and disliked, and Simon came up the second hardest to please among twenty-six. The list was headed by a man Simon admires greatly, Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, intelligent, well-mannered to the point of gentility and, in the long run, tranquilizing. With splendid perversity, Simon relished the second position.
Simon has his enthusiasms, most of them Ingmar Bergman, a great film maker who can be enjoyed by moviegoers who don’t much care for movies. Nothing better illustrates Simon’s demands on the medium than his hatred for Godard, all of Godard. Indeed, when Godard was here on a visit some years ago, Simon pursued him diligently, the better to confront him with a catalog of Godard’s failings. There is a shapelessness to Godard films, a deliberate untidiness that people with Simon’s passion for order find unbearable.
Poet manqué (the muse deserted him), émigré from academe, Simon is a tall, amused-looking man with a fading elegance. He was born in Yugoslavia, came here in his adolescence, has a vaguely Teutonic accent and at times an unexpectedly courtly manner. In contrast to the general absence of deftness in his written material—he is given to bludgeons where needles would do—Simon will say the most awful things in the most civil way. Catch him elaborating that theory of his that women of a certain age got into movie reviewing because they were so homely; the power of the position, he claims, was a substitute for the affections and sexual attentions of men. Somebody with a little time might work out a companion theory; it’s just possible there are men who wandered into reviewing movies out of an abiding need to be hated. Certainly Simon has no peer in his gift for inciting hostility. A few years ago, at a film-festival party in New York, Sylvia Miles, smarting over Simon’s criticism of a theatrical performance of hers, quietly tilted a plate of food over Simon’s head (pâté, steak tartare, coleslaw, Brie). The episode made print, and she says she was flooded with cheering mail. Considering the violence of the gesture, Simon’s response was engagingly fusty. He pursued her into another room, flicking cabbage and raw meat from his suit and denouncing her as a “baggage.”
Andrew Sarris, associate professor of cinema at Columbia University, lurches ecstatically between describing himself as a movie buff and film scholar. We are all indebted to Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape for the information that he has seen Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman upwards of eighty-five times, strictly out of reverence. In the late Forties, while an undergraduate at Columbia, Sarris, who had grown up a casual moviegoer, discovered the pictures. The city was full of decrepit old movie houses that often showed old movies. Some days, pursuing revivals of films he’d missed in earlier years, Sarris would start from the university at One Hundred Sixteenth Street and walk downtown a hundred blocks, popping into movies along the way—down upper Broadway, where many of the old palaces would later become supermarkets, across Forty-second Street, which would, in later years, cater to the skin-flick trade, down to the Village. One marathon day and night, he managed to see thirteen films. Movies were shorter then. Imagine, only imagine, a latecomer to political science catching up on six and a half Presidential biographies in a matter of twenty-four hours. (A few years later, the whole country started catching up. Early television abounded in good old movies and produced the first full-fledged film generation. Jay Cocks was introduced to Citizen Kanethrough the Million Dollar Movie, which showed the same thing every day for a week and four times on weekends. He was nine and, fascinated and mystified, he sat through it seven or eight times.)
Sarris, who could read French, found his way, in the mid-Fifties, to the young movie enthusiasts who were writing for Cahiers du Cinéma and whose ways of looking at films were to provide the foundation for his auteur position. While America sat around mooning over the sophistication of French film, its sexual directness, its grown-upness, Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut were knocking themselves out over the vitality, the energy, the speed of the American product. They loved everything about it—Westerns, action movies, genre movies—that most “serious” critics disdained. Long after Sarris had begun to champion the idea of the personal film, long after the Cahiers men had been launched as New Wave directors, Sarris met some of them and made a rather interesting discovery. They had very little English. Largely ignoring the distractions of the subtitles or the dubbed dialogue, they had gone to American films and stared at the pictures; they had seen the complicated art behind the movies of such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, they had come to realize that certain directors used the camera in recognizable ways, that they repeated visual themes, that they left recognizable signatures on their work despite the assembly-line nature of the old studio system.
Sarris’ elaboration on his original essay, “The American Cinema,” appeared in 1968, and it converted film into an academic subject; movie history was codified, lists were made, categories were established to be studied and taken to heart. He decreed a pantheon of fourteen directors (among them Chaplin, Hitchcock, Keaton, Lubitsch, Ophuls). He created some other classes: The Far Side of Paradise (De Mille, Aldrich, Capra, Preminger, Minnelli) is, for example, a better place to be than Less Than Meets the Eye (Kazan, Mankiewicz, Huston, Lean, Wyler). The book is used in college courses, either as a text or as a recommended handbook. Here and there on campuses it has produced new wavelets of Sarrisites reviewing movies for college newspapers. Without abandoning the work, Sarris seems a little less involved in it than he used to be. After all, in the days when all the critical emphasis was on communication, it was a kick extracting the expression. Now that everyone is poking into expression, he’s ferreting out communication. Having come a trifle late to Freudianism as a way of examining content, he can be found looking at Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky with an eye to the suggestion of latent homosexuality underlying the political story.
As a weekly reviewer, Sarris can be cryptic. He ran around so long with a fast crowd of intellectuals who knew one another well enough to converse in shorthand that he sometimes forgets the need for clarity. At his best, Sarris is a five-hundred-watt bulb clicking on in a cave. He has, like Kael, an extraordinary memory for movies, not for trivia, but for the emotional quality of key scenes. During a discussion of something else in The Voice last summer, he got to writing about the striptease scene in Nashville, and it was a lovely bit of illumination: the scene bathed in the hellish red light of inferno, the men more interested in the companionship of the event than in the undressing itself, the girl stumbling over her panties and the camera stumbling with her—the taut little event a metaphor for entrapment, the claustrophobia of an elevator with jammed doors.
There are romantic qualities about the way Sarris looks at movies that are reminiscent of Kael, but when the idea is raised, he will not have it. He finds her writing too oratorical, too full of angers and blue streaks, too feverish, too noisy. He agrees she has done much for movie criticism by making it exciting. But now that she’s permanently settled at The New Yorker, now that she has a house in Massachusetts, now that she has the respect and esteem of her colleagues, “I wish she would—I don’t know—quiet down,” he says, just before exploding an embarrassed laugh.
Without scanting Sarris, much of the trade rates Kael the best we have. So why does the best movie critic in the country only have a part-time job? One would have imagined some sublime accident, but it turns out to have been merely a consequence of indecisive appreciation. As William Shawn, the New Yorker editor, explained it, “We admired both of them and liked their work and thought it would be interesting if both of them would do it.” Miss Kael drew the better half of the year, the fall and winter months when most of the quality goods are released, but it is an arrangement under which she is said to suffer. Gilliatt, after all, can write short stories on her six months off, but Kael is really only interested in writing about movies. She compensates by writing about some missed movies on her time—reviewing California Split, for example, while dealing with The Gambler, or discussing Blume in Love during a notice on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
The earliest Kael collection includes astute criticism of other critics, a habit the New Yorker position has stodgily abolished. She once described Gilliatt, then writing for the London Observer, as “the most erratically brilliant of modern film critics,” an assessment that has stood the test of time. In contrast to her cotenant in the space, Miss Gilliatt is cool, measured, reserved; she does work that ranges from skyrocketing intelligence to spongy opacity. Sometimes she gets lost in excessive plot detail, possibly as a result of working from scripts as well as screenings; on at least one occasion, the habit has caused her to discuss a scene that never appeared in the finished work.
Pauline Kael’s dispraise hurts people’s feelings in ways no one else’s can. They take it personally.
Pauline Kael wears large eyeglasses, simple clothes and, at the moment of attack, a nervous lemon-sherbet smile. The smile is there as she ticks off writers, actors, directors—newly met or old acquaintances, it doesn’t matter—telling them exactly what she finds wrong with their work. Nobody can beat her at the purer-than-thou number. She has another quality that does not appear to find its way into print. At a critics’ symposium for journalists last spring, she left the impression that she does not flinch from martyrdom:
“I don’t think I could tie myself into knots staying up all night to make a deadline if I didn’t believe that I was trying to clarify something for myself and that perhaps the clarification might provide a touchstone for other people. . . .
“I was hired at The New Yorker to write eight hundred words a week. Gradually I pushed it up so it’s more like three or four thousand a week. I get penalized because I’m still paid on the basis of eight hundred words a week. Okay, that’s something I can live with. But I feel now I’ve gotten to the point maybe I can say what I want to say.”
Most Kaelites begin by exalting the passion she brings to the subject, as if registering highs on some movie-meter automatically made her the best. But it has always seemed to me that her special thing is the visceral response she has to film and her talent for remembering it. She embodies several generations of film and is able to summon up her first response to something she saw twenty years ago as skillfully as she can recall last week’s new movie. She is the most autobiographical of critics, which is by no means as easy as it sounds; it requires a gift for sifting out the extraneous and the trivial. There is a divine jitteriness about the way she looks at film; moved physically and emotionally by matters on the screen, prone to champion certain actors and certain directors, she may be the most romantic of critics. As novels were to other generations, movies are to Kael, often realer than life.
She is less forgiving than any Sarrisite of movies that sin by “suffering from aspirations.” On the other hand, no one else has better celebrated the good bad movie, a uniquely American gift to entertainment. As a critic, Miss Kael has said that she takes special care to avoid wounding the sensibilities of young film artists. She is not as kind to the older ones. “No one is ever likely to say that he was put to sleep by Sidney Lumet’s good taste,” or “One might uncharitably point out that [Sandy Dennis] had already made an acting style out of postnasal drip,” or Robert Aldrich “directs like a lewd tourist,” or “Omar Sharif is a great sufferer. . . . What a Camille he’d be,” or “Who in his right mind would cast the three leads with Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna and David Janssen, when anybody can see they’re all the same man?”
Hollywood reads her obsessively and courts her approval out of all proportion to the size of The New Yorker’s audience. They want her love. Her dispraise hurts people’s feelings in ways no one else’s can. They take it personally. On the other hand, she takes their failures personally. A few years ago, a long-standing endorsement of Robert Redford was withdrawn, starting with Jeremiah Johnson. Seeing him in a Hollywood restaurant one day, Miss Kael introduced herself and explained her review to him in some detail. She’d had such high hopes for him. And he’d let her down. Redford goes around telling the story to anyone who asks. He thinks she’s not rational about him.
Miss Kael has unadvertised kindnesses. She reads scripts sent to her by strangers and casual acquaintances; she encourages students who ask her to look at their work. David Denby first met her when she came to Stanford to deliver a lecture in 1967. He began sending her examples of his writing. A generous and demanding teacher, she would return them with pungent criticism: “It’s shit, honey, do it again.” Denby, like many younger critics of his time, sees himself as an offspring of both the Kael eclectic and Sarris auteur schools. But he is especially grateful to and especially eloquent about the sense he drew from Kael that dealing with movies is dealing with a wildly impure venture produced under the contradictory pressures of commercialism and aesthetic ambition and venality and suffering and sometimes even nobility. The best kind of writing about movies, he supposes, is an act of self-integration. But when that happens, you lose your place within the magic Kael circle. It’s a little like Freud and his disciples. You go off on your own, you begin to disagree violently and she disowns you.
To those who are ambivalent about her—you do not dislike Kael, you are ambivalent about her and rather wish she would like you—she is the queen bee, the den mother, among the less uncomplimentary titles. She has favorite moviemakers to whom she gives advice with busybody insistence. It is said that she walked out on a dinner with Ray Stark when he failed to give serious ear to her ideas; it is known that Lindsay Anderson left her and an unfinished lunch when he not only failed to persuade her to love This Sporting Life but found himself exposed to a flood of exposition on what was unlovable about it.
In Hollywood once, Jay Cocks was taken to meet Sam Peckinpah. He found himself viewing a rough cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Miss Kael saw some of the movie that day, too. They both wound up in Peckinpah’s office listening to the director mention, with casual self-destructiveness, that he might just take off for a few days to attend a Peckinpah festival at some campus. Now, the picture was in terrible trouble; there were a half dozen editing hands mauling it, unnerving deadlines and the studio moneymen breathing fire. A friend and admirer of Peckinpah’s, Kael simply sailed into him. She said all the things the producer was too scared to say and Cocks was too polite to say. It went something like this: “You asshole, how dare you leave? You’re an artist. You’ve got a responsibility to this film.” Cocks has never admired her more.
What’s wrong with this picture? It struck Cocks awhile later that he and Kael were there as a calculated effort by Peckinpah to intimidate the studio into letting him alone or giving him more time. Kael is certainly smart enough to have realized the same thing, but it didn’t matter. She had a chance at one of the things she knows best—saving Hollywood from itself.
And who cares about all of this? Not your average Saturday-night-at-the-movies customer. There’s a big gap in data on critic clout with moviegoers, but one distributor commissioned a study to determine which critic moviegoers claimed influenced them. The name that headed all the rest was Gene Shalit no less. Shalit, with his comic-strip moustache; Shalit, who does movies for the Today show and seventy NBC affiliates, often in two minutes or less, including the thirty-second film clip chosen with an eye to instant impact; Shalit, who has been seen crying at movies he will never review because they are too sad to lend themselves to his peppy style; Shalit, who does shtick (“Shampoo is stylish . . . it is streaked with laughter”) had almost one third of the paying audience.
A depressing detail to the print journalist, but no worse perhaps than the long dry stretches of dreary films when a sensitive person begins to wonder whether going to the movies is a respectable job for a grown-up. Those are the times Joe Gelmis feels used. Some bad weeks, you think of yourself as a hooker, forced to embrace every stranger who comes to town. But then something wonderful comes along, and it’s real love again.
[Photo Credit: Stephen Shore c/o The Arts Institute of Chicago]