Sunday, July 13, 2008

Some Remarks On . . .
FilmCrit and The Skidoo Epiphany

Over the weekend I was reading an essay on J.D. Salinger that Janet Malcom published in the New York Review of Books back in June of 2001. Though I still incline toward the negative conclusions arrived at by his contemporary critics, it was an altogether admirable defense of America's best known, best selling literary recluse (only Thomas Pynchon . . . who once was rumored to be Salinger . . . approaches his mystique, if not his sales figures). She argues that the immensely long and overconfident non-stories he trotted out like unbalanced show ponies in his last decade as a publishing writer represented something approaching the full weight of Salinger's literary musculature; that they were far more inventive and original works than critics of the day could perceive. In short, she was saying that Alfred Kazin and John Updike and Mary McCarthy (among many others) were struck by a sudden contagion of critical blindness. It is, as I say, a position one could easily dispute. Very easily.

In any event, I was reading this essay when I came across the following; from which I quote:

"Like the contemporary criticism of Olympia, for example, which jeered at Manet for his crude indecency, or that of War and Peace, which condescended to Tolstoy for the inept "shapelessness" of the novel, it [criticism of Salinger in the early 1960s] now seems magnificently misguided. However—as T.J. Clark and Gary Saul Morson have shown in their respective exemplary studies of Manet and Tolstoy—negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work's originality. The "mistakes" and 'excesses' that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power."

Maybe. In the realm of film criticism there are no analogs for, say, Alfred Kazin; there have only been shadows, no more. The reasons for this are too varied and, frankly, too obvious to enumerate in full. Suffice it to say for now that cinema is a medium of such unprecedented volatility that those entrusted with evaluating its many-hued issue are forced, almost as a mechanism of sheer survival, to fall back on one warhorse gimmick or another from which the reader, poor excluded slob, can then divine what narrowly-cast critical sensibility is ascendant. For a critic it's either that or surrender to the irrational nature of the art and acknowledge a baseline cynicism in the critical enterprise. Whether it's mass-market critics tailoring reviews to their own, abysmally low opinion of the audience, or the merry band of Stepford Cinephiles across the globe knocking great viscous balls of reflexive, often identically-worded CriticSpeak back and forth at one another in the most incestuous game of linguistic volley ball imaginable, the imperatives of film criticism will undoubtedly forever reside as far from the true nature of motion pictures as its practitioners can get away with. It literally has to be that way. After all, what film critic on earth . . . good or bad; esteemed or despised . . . wants to voluntarily bring the ballgame to a halt by admitting that words, in the end, will never get the job done?

That said, if FilmCrit is indeed a sweet racket . . . and I don't say that it isn't; at least for those who do it well . . . it does, however, invite certain impulses that can mis-shape the perspective of otherwise unsuspecting readers. I'm speaking, in the main, of the potential for abuse in retrospective analysis; a widely-practiced critical phenomenon (for those of you playing along at home) wherein a work that once suffered foul injustice at the hands of its contemporary jurists is re-heard by a subsequent generation of critics; picked up, dusted off, resurrected; very often reborn into a higher form.

In other words, exactly what Janet Malcom tried to do for poor old J.D. Salinger back in 2001. She's correct that the blinkered estimates of yesteryear can assist a later critic in gauging just how poorly (or not) this work or that work was treated, and for every such rescue mission in literary criticism, I daresay there must be a dozen or more in the arena of cinema. It's a worthy and valuable function, on its face, but the possibility that it could easily get out of hand occurred to me the other night when I had opportunity to revisit Otto Preminger's panavision trainwreck, Skidoo, and reflect on my own critical attitudes (such as they were) when first I bore witness to it.

I saw Skidoo for the first time on television (where else) sometime in the mid 1980s. I'll confess to being somewhat eager beforehand. You see, I was already a confirmed fanatic when it came to its director. More crucially, I was still careening heedlessly through the as-yet-undiscovered (by me) niches and alleyways and hidey-holes of cinema; fully intoxicated by that post-adolescent auteurist fever-dream where something . . . anything . . . could always be found that would redeem even the most maudit of maudit works.

I was familiar with Skidoo's generally foul reputation, of course . . . I doubt if I had ever come across a positive word said in its behalf . . . but I couldn't have cared less. In those days I was trying to make my way as a 'working' film critic (translation: trying to land a paying gig); casting perspective where I could on the medium's discharges, old and new. So I had, you could say, a sense of mission inside my heart. No, it wasn't morbid curiosity driving me (as it would be today); it wasn't even a basic interest in seeing a heretofore unseen film by a director I admired extravagantly. If anything I was, in that moment, possessed by an overwhelming desire to redress a critical wrong and ride to the rescue of a work that just . . . had to be . . . far more worthy than everyone said it was. The very fact that critics of its time dismissed the thing with no more than a few paragraphs and a shudder only gave this determination to welcome it and clasp it to my critical bosom a greater urgency than I had anticipated.

Turns out that I wasn't up to the task. Perhaps it was because I hadn't yet seen other Preminger failures of the late 60s/early 70s and didn't really know what to expect (it must be said that a film like Skidoo comes as a considerable shock when you only know this man's work, as I did then, from relative masterworks such as The Cardinal, Anatomy of a Murder, Daisy Kenyon; Bunny Lake is Missing, even); perhaps the abominable Pan 'n' Scan transfer only served to magnify flaws that would not have been quite so obvious if I was seeing it in its correct aspect ratio; perhaps my capacity for willful self-delusion simply wasn't as vast as the enterprise of film criticism requires; perhaps it was all three. Fact is, I still don't know why my iron-clad determination to admire Skidoo at any cost suddenly vanished midway into the opening sequence. I only know that it did.

I won't say that I was apalled enough to switch it off, or that I could have written it off as just a prosaically bad movie; even as a lesser work in the Preminger canon. The minor films of his that I'd seen by then . . . Saint Joan and (I think) The Moon is Blue . . . had a degree of logic to their failings; they harmonized with the kind of filmmaker I already believed Otto Preminger to be. But Skidoo, with its mystifying blend of capering farce and counter-cultural lip service, its battalion of Hollywood veterans throwing their dignity onto the pyre en masse, was . . . something else, and I watched it unfold in all its garish, mind-breaking wrongness with an unambiguous species of fascination. I couldn't begin to tell if it was some kind of failed satire, or a misguided joke on the audience; though I knew one thing almost instantly: Skidoo was a stillborn child inseminated by shrieking miscalculations; the kind that I, card-carrying Teenage Auteurist, was simply not accustomed to attributing to favored directors. It stood tall in the psychedelic saddle as a depraved and unexpected challenge to my fundamental conception of Otto Preminger as an artist, and I didn't like that. I didn't like it at all.

I watched it again two nights ago, after the mighty Turner Classic Movies hauled it out of the formless void where it had been dangling on a hook for a couple of decades and slapped it onto their weekly TCM Underground presentation. Still Pan 'n' Scan (I'm told that TCM wouldn't plunk down the coin for a widescreen edition, thereby foregoing what would at least have been a premiere run in that format), but of far better image quality than washed-out bootlegs and my dim recollection. I won't say that my fundamental opinion of it shifted to any degree, but it puzzled and absorbed me nevertheless, far more than it had twenty-odd years ago, and the realization stole upon me as I watched it that I could, if I so desired (and I practically did at that moment), unpack my adjectives and write something positive . . . if not, perhaps, glowing with praise . . . about it in this blog. The unchecked, impulsive half of my brain was aware that Skidoo was still, by any rational measure, absolutely lousy; but the other half, my supposedly rational and sober critical faculty, was once again prepared to dive in like an overeager lifeguard and breathe a good name into the lungs of this godawful movie that it has otherwise never enjoyed. The feeling passed after a few hours, but it was replaced by a disturbing recognition of my own cynicism. Not the cynicism of coming here to more or less deliberately inflate a reaction that was at best highly ambiguous into a misleading form of exuberance (though there was that). I mean the impulses of my misspent youth that got me itching to rush to this movie's defense before I'd actually seen it.

Oh, you may say I was being idealistic then; indulging a weakness endemic to youth and all that rhythm. But not only do I find it questionable in my case, I have a wisp of suspicion that almost every such resurrection in FilmCrit (planned or executed; wrong or righteous) is accompanied by a like degree of calculation. For anyone in this racket with so much as an ounce of ambition . . . and I plead guilty to harboring more than one ounce . . . will discover that idealism and cynicism are so fatally joined, so inexorably intertwined, that after awhile you can't tell one condition from the other; what's more, you don't even want to. It won't get you anywhere. Latter-day cinephiles and movie reviewers (and I number myself in this concord) should, it can be argued, preserve their morale and remain in perpetual flight from the reality of what they're doing. But when our enthusiasm, our true and everlasting love for cinema becomes so omnivorous, so all-embracing that even crap like Skidoo starts looking good to us, then I sometimes wonder if it might not be time to honor the medium at the center of our souls and find another, slightly less honorable preoccupation.


Steve C. said...

Thoughtful piece here, dude. Lord knows I've found myself watching many a critically savaged work (Skidoo included) to see if I couldn't scrape together some worth out of them, presumably for more reason than simply to say, "You're all wrong, you bastards!" But what is it that compels that impulse? I'd like to think that it's not just knee-jerk contrarianism and the countless wasted hours spent confirming that, say, Southland Tales is indeed hopeless junk aren't born solely from a desire to be That Guy. But then I look at my willingness to defend something as outwardly reprehensible as I Spit on Your Grave and, ya know, it makes a fella wonder.

Tom Sutpen said...

It's a very good question. One thing that sustains the impulse to rescue maudit works is, I think, the undeniable fact (which I didn't point out in this post . . . my bad) that so many films in the past that were dismissed with barely a nod (generally for their genre origins) are films that we all now recognize as essential works; and the knowledge that critics from the 1950s on have played the principal role in that process. I mean, if you think, as I do, that mass-market critics and quote whores today are bad, compare them to, say, Mordaunt Hall or Bosley Crowther in the long ago. Those people watched one masterpiece after another float right past them virtually unnoticed. Read A.H. Weiler's New York Times review of Rio Bravo, or any of the contemporary reviews of The Magnificent Ambersons. Those people were lost. Not only didn't they have a clue what was in front of them, I suspect they wouldn't have wanted one even as a gift.

But while there's been a tremendous amount of value for cinephiles of any stripe in redressing the myopia of past critics, there's also been, for those mounting these latter-day defenses, more than one speck of glory to be had . . . and this is where I think critics can sometimes go crazy. Because we are . . . though few of us will admit it aloud . . . an incredibly ambitious bunch, we who cast into words our views on the single most powerful visual medium man has forged. We all want to climb the greasy pole in one way or another and get some esteem out of the deal. Christ, you can't make any money in this racket, so what measure of achievement do we have other than being quoted and cited by our like-minded peers?

I have absolutely no doubt that this goal resided somewhere in the back of my mind when I was seriously pursuing whatever career I could get in FilmCrit, and it's why I loved writing about films that weren't written about a great deal; particularly those directed by auteurs of note. What surprised and troubled me the other night was the realization that, after starting this blog, I still had that impulse skittering around in my brain. The only difference is that now I have slightly more skill when it comes to defending the indefensible than I had when I was 17-18.

My guess is that the most effective way to work around it without letting one's ambition run the whole show is to ask yourself if the rescue attempt you're contemplating is motivated by a genuine desire to restore something that was needlessly maligned and ignored, or if it's merely to get you somewhere. I don't pretend to be any better at answering that than anyone else, to be candid; and the fact that it can very often represent both conditions is immensely complicating.

I will say that, having been stricken with this icky malady all my adult life, I can recognize the symptoms in others. There are film critics/bloggers among us who I know, to a certainty, are incapable of writing a word that isn't utterly sodden with the intent of advancing their slimy fortunes (no, I won't name names, except to say that it's not anyone I've linked to here; nor is it everyone who isn't linked). Consequently, you can't believe a word they say. Far as I can tell you're doing just fine. I was sorry to see you suspend Ongoing Education for awhile (just as I was bitterly sorry to see Ray Young's Flickhead blog go the way of all flesh), but it did my heart a good turn to witness your comeback. You gots my best wishes, for whatever they may be worth.

Vanwall said...

Speaking as a long-time slob-o-the-masses that has watched film for it's most basic intent as a viewer: escape, and also knowing that in the back of everyone's mind associated with it's gestation and release is the intent to make a buck, I've generally ignored critical appraisals until, oh, say ten years or so have passed, minimum. There's always been too much money talking to make me trust most print reviewers that are contemporaneous, (although I would've loved to have read Agee's work when the ink was barely dry) and if the bloom is off the rose, a real critical review will see the whole thing, thorns and all. What I've learned as an auto-didact in film may not be as fancy and fine as the pros, but I never gave much of a shit for that aspect - I now read a few blogs on film and such, and I'm sure there's plenty more I could peruse, but frankly, it's like chatter and chaff - too much extraneous noise to hear clearly, so I switch off most of it, just as I did before the WWW existed, sadly.

I look back on what I watched in the '60s, '70s, '80s & now the '90s, and yeah, I had those same impulses to believe in certain movie people and their films, to an irrational degree maybe, but movies are about an emotional investment in the process, even if minute - if not, you're really dead inside, my friend, something a lot of professional critics seem to suffer to one degree or another.

No critic's reviews could've induced me to see many of the films in say, 1971, as by then I had given up putting any faith in their choices as regarded my tastes, which were pretty eccentric, or in a nice way: 'eclectic', as described by my high-school Russian teacher when she advised my to watch a special showing of "The Cranes are Flying" one Saturday instead of "Fiddler on the Roof" that a group of my friends were going to see. I hadn't heard of it, and couldn't even find a review of it before I went, but the point is, it would have been impossible to put into words how beautiful and fascinating I found it, something I can't say about "Fiddler on the Roof" - a film generally well-reviewed at the time. It made an impression on me all the same, tho - it reinforced my still rather low opinions of paid critics.

Tom Sutpen said...

The question every film critic has to ask him or herself . . . and I don't think many do (I know I don't on occasion) . . . is 'To what degree am I compromised by my own personal agenda? Mass-market critics, on the other hand, the ones who review movies in major newspapers or (God help us) on television, face an outer, as well as inner corruption. They can find themselves prey to enticements (finding one's name and words quoted in an ad can wreak absolute havoc on one's ethical compass) that are generally not on offer to critics nobody reads (except, perhaps, for other critics).

I'm sure there are some critics/bloggers who, if they ever read this blog, would think I was nuts for bringing up this issue . . . and I certainly invite anyone to take issue with it . . . but I don't see any down side to contemplating the nature of what one does in this world (what it means; what are its effects, if any); even when its something as trivial within the spectrum of human activity as reviewing movies.

swac said...

Thankfully, I've only been quoted in ads for obscure Canadian films no one in their right mind would want to waste their precious time on. Some enticement.

Paul Gallagher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Catching up on some blog reading today as I add and remove links to my own site and I can't help but add something to this interesting, but VERY old conversation since it touches on some things I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Obviously I stand on the exact opposite side of the room on this issue, which should be clear to anyone who has visited my blog. I should also mention that I found Skidoo somewhat entertaining, but I had no urge to write about it after I'd seen it. It was like eating cotton candy. Colorful and sweet, but easily forgotten and completely unfilling. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy cotton candy once in awhile, but I wouldn’t call it more than light and fluffy entertainment to be enjoyed with friends and possibly a few bottles of wine.

I tend to hate film criticism that toes the party line and repeats supposed wisdoms' verbatim as if they’re set in stone and to be treated like commandments. Often these commandments are repeated over and over again so they become mantras for film fanatics and critics who haven’t even watched half of the movies they claim to worship or despise.

On the other hand, I also can't understand why so many popular current critics and bloggers, etc. seem to have absolutely no film history under their belts and often enjoy banging their clenched fists against an imaginary wall of authority. It's become fashionable or "hip" to proclaim Welles and Hitchcock overrated directors these days, which I find utterly ridiculous.

Of course, where would film criticism be today if a few French critics hadn’t decided to proclaim Hitchcock a genius who was deserving of much more praise, attention and critical respect?

I deeply believe that there are plenty of films and directors still well worth uncovering and celebrating. On the other hand, I’m not sure Skidoo is one of them. I would raise my glass to Preminger's filmography any day of the week though.

I have so much more I want to say on the topic that I really should turn it into an essay and maybe I will some day. At the moment I’m feeling utterly drained and unmotivated to post much of anything at Cinebeats except half naked pictures of Alain Delon.