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All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?

By Richard Corliss

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From the March/April 1990 issue: Richard Corliss attacks thumbs-up film criticism culture

Will anyone read this story? (It has too many words and not enough pictures.) Does anyone read this magazine? (Every article in it wants to be a meal, not a McNugget.) Is anyone reading film criticism? (It lacks the punch, the clips, the thumbs.) Can anyone still read? (These days, it's more fun and less work just to watch.)

My mother saves movie ads in which my name appears and magnetizes them to the door of her refrigerator. She judges my success as a Time film critic by the size and frequency of the blurbs publicists choose to promote their wares. Mom always taught me that if you can't say something nice about a picture, don't say anything at all. So if a month or two passes and I'm not quoted, she gets to fretting. "That Jeffrey Lyons;' she purrs, scanning the ads, "he must be a very nice man. He seems to like everything." I have an image of Jeffrey Lyons' mother's refrigerator, festooned with rave quotes. It must be the size of a freezer at Hormel's main plant.

Jeffrey Lyons isn't a film critic, but he plays one on TV. The resident movie sage on PBS's Sneak Previews and superstation WPIX, Lyons has no thoughts, no wit, no perspective worth sharing with his audience. To anyone knowledgeable about pictures , he is a figure of sour mirth. But the other week he stumbled upon a truth about film reviewing at the end of this enervating decade. Appraising the movie Internal Affairs, Lyons said, "Sometimes, as an old showbiz adage goes, less can be more." No matter that the phrase was Robert Browning's (popularized by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) and not Sam Goldwyn's. In today's movie criticism, less is more. Shorter is sweeter. Today's busy consumers want just the clips, ma'am. And an opinion that can be codified in numbers, letters, or thumbs.

The star system (• to * * * *) is as honored in popular reviewing as it is in Hollywood. It is a way of summing up the critic's response to a film. But in less-is-all TV, the reviewer hardly has time for the basics: synopsize the plot, introduce an excerpt, and then (if he hates the movie) make a joke or (if he likes it) invoke the five W's—warm, winning, wise, wacky, wonderful. Traditional considerations of directorial style, social import, and the film's place in film history are luxuries unobtainable in a no-frills review. Words are so much hot (or dead) air; only the number matters. So Gary Franklin, Lyons' West Coast counterpart, pegs movies on a 1-to-10 scale. But, inflation being rampant in the rhetoric market, Franklin must give his favorites a 10 +. On Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, the critics play Roman emperors and award a thumbs-down condemnation or a thumbs-up reprieve.

The new magazine Entertainment Weekly assigns a letter grade to each movie, television program, book, or classical record. EW's editor is Jeff Jarvis, a self-proclaimed "cultural spud." As the TV critic for People until last year, Jarvis panned Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of the great novels he was forced to skim in high school. He argued that the top-rated TV shows had more artistic value than the bestseller list. In a review of Nixon in China he wrote: "I hate people who talk slowly and people who repeat themselves—ergo, I hate opera." Now Jarvis is the culture czar at Time Inc. And EW is the reductio ad infinitum of a tendency—ignited by People, stoked by Entertainment Tonight, and inflamed by USA Today—to reduce history to gossip and criticism to a voxpop brain scan.

"Real" critics—my colleagues in print, for whom films and film reviewing are just a little more complex—may think that Lyons and Franklin have no more in common with serious writing than belly dancers do with the Ballet Russe. At their most generous, print critics will say, ''We're writers, they're performers," who must create a stern or goofy TV personality and look natural while cribbing from a TelePrompter. The print guys will quote with approval the observation of ABC-TVs film and theater enthusiast Joel Siegel, who told Theater Week magazine, "Frank Rich got hired because he can write. I got hired because I can read." They will surely scoff at Lyons' prickly pretensions when he accuses his print brethren of "jealousy. They resent our money and exposure. They look down their noses at us. And that's the reason I make a point of being called a critic as opposed to a reviewer. It's my way of saying I'm doing exactly what they're doing."

Lyons is almost right. He's doing exactly what we may soon have to do. To editors at major newspapers and magazines, the brisk opinion-mongering of TV critics—the minute-manager approach to an art form about which there is so much to say—provides the maximum daily requirements to be consumed by a readership glutted with information. Isn't everyone in a hurry? TV certainly is, and TV sets the pace we live and think by. The nightly newscasts are offering more but briefer stories: not news in depth-news in shallow. Tabloid topics, sexy footage, lotsa graphics, hold the analysis: television news plays like The International Enquirer staged by MTV. In this cramped universe, the traditional film critic might as well be writing in Latin. The long view of cinema aesthetics is irrelevant to a moviegoer for whom history began with Star Wars. A well-turned phrase is so much throat-clearing to a reader who wants the critic to cut to the chase: What movie is worth my two hours and six bucks this weekend? Movie criticism of the elevated sort, as practiced over the past half-century by James Agee and Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman and Dave Kehr—in the mainstream press and in magazines like FILM COMMENT—is an endangered species. Once it flourished; soon it may perish, to be replaced by a consumer service that is no brains and all thumbs.

When Pauline Kael moved from San Francisco to New York in the mid-Sixties, she called her archrival Andrew Sarris and suggested they meet. After the visit, Sarris told his friend Eugene Archer, "She wasn't exactly Katharine Hepburn." And Archer added, "Well, you're not exactly Spencer Tracy."

But they were, in a way. They raised the musty trade of film criticism to a volcanic, love-hate art. Their wrangles over the auteur theory had the excitement of politics and sport. The intensity of their debate lured people to see new films, and to see old (especially old Hollywood) movies in a new way. They opened eyes, awakened curiosity, aroused intelligence. They made film criticism sexy. Pictures were things that mattered; ideas were worth fighting over. Forget Tracy-Hepburn. Sarris and Kael were more like Ali-Frazier. Film criticism was the main event, and these two were the champs.

The important thing was not that they converted readers to their positions—after all, they ended up converting each other. Sarris came around to cherishing certain directors, like Huston and Akira Kurosawa, whom Kael had once chided him for attacking. And Kael became a more rigorous and predictable champion of a few younger filmmakers (Peckinpah, Kershner, Kaufman, De Palma) than Sarris had ever been of Hitchcock and Hawks.

Their true and lasting value was in the voices they devised for film criticism. Sarris' prose was dense, balanced, aphoristic , alliterative; he had taken more from the French than just the politique des auteurs. Kael's was loping, derisive, intimate, gag-packed, as American as Lenny Bruce. I can recall reading one of Kael's early pieces in Film Quarterly (1961, maybe) and being shocked—shocked!—to see she'd used a contraction. In those prim days, when most serious film criticism read like term papers in sociology and most popular reviews read like wire copy, Kael's writing was the battle cry of a vital and dangerous new era, the equivalent of Little Richard's primal "A wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom!" that announced the birth of rock 'n' roll.

It's not as if no American had ever written about film in the vernacular, or with passion or intelligence. There had always been a freedom in reviewing a medium so pervasive and so déclassé. The critic needn't bring reverence to the job. He could speak in his own voice, at his own desired decibel level. In the late Thirties and Forties, Otis Ferguson and Manny Farber, writing for The New Republic, and Agee in The Nation, created a body of reviews that still make edifying reading. Another critic, Cecelia Ager, who appeared in the New York tabloid P.M., established the bright, brittle tone that Kael would later make her own. Ager on Citizen Kane: "It's as though you'd never seen a movie before." Ager on the Bette Davis weepie Deception: "It's like grand opera, only the people are thinner." (Contractions! Wow!) Agee, Ferguson, and Farber finally had their film pieces collected in book form. Nobody's publishing film books anymore, but it would be lovely to see the work of this neglected critic between hard covers.

The difference between the best Forties criticism and Sarris' and Kael's work two decades later was the difference between journalism—great journalism—and criticism. I once opined that Agee and Farber in their Time days were writing "haiku in the margins of film history," and Farber readily agreed. It's not that the short review is the assassin of wit and insight; a clever writer can shadowbox artfully in 40 or 60 lines, sketch a line of argument, give hints of a directorial style, vacuum-pack ideas into assertions . But these wonderful writers couldn't take 9,000 to demolish Siegfried Kracauer's theory of film, as Kael did in Film Quarterly. They couldn't erect the auteurist Pantheon in 68 pages of Film Culture, as Sarris did. Both generations of critics were film artists, but Agee and Farber were Tex Avery miniaturists; Sarris and Kael were muralists—Abel Gance, chronicling another revolution.

At first their publications had subscriber lists of just a few thousand, but soon the critics found larger audiences, Kael at The New Yorker and Sarris with his blossoming constituency at The Village Voice. Their occasional brawls were now broadcast in The New York Times. Considerations of Kael's collected pieces appeared on the front pages of the Times' book review. They also created, in their warring images, a generation of acolytes. They raised young readers into writers who, to this day, carry the cultural passions of Sarris or Kael, or both, like DNA. We were called Sarrisites (Wilfrid Sheed's wonderfully malign epithet: rhymes with parasites) or Paulettes (my phrase, for my sins). And like some juicy family feud, the old debates were reheated for new readers when our children's crusade marched into the available jobs. We were shouting at each other because belligerence was the only sound we had heard as kids at the film critical dinner table—but in the same language, the one Sarris and Kael had taught us.

For a while, it seems everyone spoke this language: Hollywood hacks who made "A Film By ... ," moviegoers for whom "auteurs" now had marquee value, college professors ready to teach Lang, Murnau, and Curtiz—and maybe Larry, Moe, and Curly. Nearly every critic with a regular job published a book, often a scrapbook of his reviews. Someone must be reading this stuff. It must be the "film generation;" the kids who would attend our wisdom, patronize our anointed directors , and, soon enough, make films tailored to our aesthetic prejudices.

That was delusion, of course—a typically American delusion of power and primacy. The French had started it all, defining and romanticizing the burly energy of Hollywood films. Then, from the early Sixties, a batch of British renegades—among them Robin Wood, Raymond Durgnat, David Thomson, Peter Wollen—had been using another brilliant set of dialects. And, in Wollen's influential case, dialectics. Sarris and Kael had validated the Hollywood film as a field of study, but their brand of interpretive scholarship never took at American universities; it wasn't sufficiently serious or rigorous or engage. By the mid-Seventies academe had been liberated or subjugated by semiology. Approaches to film were more fragmented. Semiologists claimed the high ground—the right to set the aesthetic, political, and moral agenda—while the Paulettes and Sarrisites found themselves loitering in familiarly dank territory, in the monarchy of midcult. We wouldn't be the next Truffauts, just the latest Bosley Crowthers. We weren't the only, and weren't the first. And we wouldn't last.

An excerpt from the basement video show Wayne's World, starring young Wayne Campbell and his friend Garth, and featured on Saturday Night Live:

WAYNE: OK! Let's take a look at the movies, all right?

GARTH: All right!

WAYNE: Our first movie is Back to the Future 2, starring Michael J. Fox. I liked it! Garth?

GARTH: Yeah, I liked it too.

WAYNE: OK, let's move on! OK! Steel Magnolias, starring Darryl Hannah and Dolly Parton. I thought it sucked! It's a chick movie! Garth?

GARTH: Yeah, it sucked.

WAYNE: OK, OK! Valmont, with that babe Meg Tilly—growwwwwl! Didn't see it. Garth?

GARTH: Didn't see it.

It remained only for somebody to claim the rich, fertile low ground. How inevitable, how irresistible, the rise of TV criticism now seems! We could write reams of descriptive, delirious, indignant prose. But we couldn't show you a clip from the movie. Sarris once said that much of Agee's famous Life essay on silent film comedy—his evocation of Chaplin's walk or a Keaton gag was gorgeously irrelevant, if you'd seen the films. The evidence was on the screen. I couldn't agree, because every Agee description offered implicit analysis; it was the art of gesture mirrored in the craft of writing. But Sarris was accurate, and prophetic, in spite of himself. Traditional film criticism was images reconsidered in words. First we told you what the picture was, then we told you what it meant; and on both accounts you had to take our word(s) for it.

The next step would be to analyze films on TV. Then you could literally see what we were talking about. And we could finally make good on auteurism's unfulfilled promise of mise-en-scene analysis. All we needed was the technology. And in the Sixties, at the same time Sarris and Kael were clawing their way to prominence, TV sports directors were creating the crucial means of reproduction: the instant replay. Now there were "analysts" like Al DeRogatis (and, later, John Madden) who not only told you but showed you what happened and what it meant.

At the time, I was thrilled by the potential this powerful tool offered film scholarship. No more reliance on faulty, fractured memory—you could study a film as you would a painter's oeuvre, frame by frame. And at the Columbia University film school, one professor, Stefan Scharf, was teaching visual acuity by just this means. He would show, say, Chabrol's Leda, stopping each scene to note visual and dramatic composition. In the Eighties, at film festivals, Roger Ebert would do the same with a print of Citizen Kane. Entertaining and illuminating, as only a bon vivant scholar-showman can be.

Yes, that Roger Ebert. Gene Siskel's costar on the long-running syndicated series Siskel & Ebert & The Movies. This is, shall we say, no film university of the air. The program does not dwell on shot analysis, or any other kind of analysis. It is a sitcom (with its own noodling, toodling theme song) starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time. Oscar Ebert and Felix Siskel. "The fat guy and the bald guy." S&E&TM is every kind of TV and no kind of film criticism. It's as tightly structured as a movie star's promotional visit to a talkshow: the requisite clip, the desultory chat. It shows you a couple of minutes from several new films so you can decide if you want to see them or, even better, talk about them at parties without bothering to see them. For moviegoers in a hurry, this is Masterplots Theatre.

The format, to be sure, was not designed to offer extended, enlightened commentary on pictures. It means mainly to answer two consumer questions about every movie: What's it like? Will I like it? A minute or two of discussion (which amounts to fewer words on the subject than one of Agee's, or my, Time blurbs), and break for commercial. S&E&TM is what it is. And it is successful enough for each of its stars to earn, it is said, an annual million or so dollars from the gig. Which nobody can deny a jolly good fellow like Roger. Whatever the gripes against their show, Siskel and Ebert do a tough job professionally. They give you movie clips and sound bites. They look at ease and in charge on the home screen—no small feat, as I can attest (and I've got the videotapes to prove it). They have triumphantly marketed TV-size versions of themselves. They are the very best possible "Siskel" and "Ebert." More money to them.

And less power. It's not that I'm embarrassed to see them shooting hoops in a poor-white-kids version of Michael vs. Magic on Late Night with David Letterman. That's just showbiz. I simply don't want people to think that what they have to do on TV is what I am supposed to do in print. I don't want junk food to be the only cuisine at the banquet. I don't want to think that all the critics who have made me proud to be among their number are now talking to only themselves, or to a coterie no larger than the one Kael and Sarris first addressed 30 years ago. They were Ali-Frazier; I don't want us to be Foreman-Cooney.

I hope there is a place in popular criticism for the seductiveness of a David Thomson sentence, with its snap, grace, and insolence. I hope Richard T. Jameson, the new custodian of this beleaguered magazine, will keep writing eloquently about what's on the screen and, as editor, encourage other critics to define their terms when they say a film is well or poorly made. Most of all, I hope there are still readers with the vigor, curiosity, and intelligence that Agee demanded of filmmakers and critics. We're in this fight together. To understand pictures, we still need words.

Did you get to the end of this story? Good. Maybe there's hope for both of us.

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