A cigarette dangles Bogartishly from his tight lips. A rumpled trenchcoat hangs large and loose about his shoulders. He cradles a camera whose lens points provocatively outward at both photographer and reader. He is documentary filmmaker Dan Drasin, and his wary expression graces the first issue of a TV Guide-sized film magazine, running 36 pages and costing 40 cents, called Vision.
This was the spring of 1962, when everyone was starting to take movies seriously, and the spirit of small-scale artistic entrepreneurship was in the air. In Britain, Movie magazine was raising a strong challenge to Sight and Sound for the arts and minds of sophisticated cinemagoers; in the U.S., Film Quarterly and Film Culture were hitting their strides; and in New York, the first of a half-dozen specialized film magazines that would surface in the next three years was hitting the stands. Vision would be the only one of these “buff periodicals,” as Variety calls them, to last. Two issues later, to avoid confusion with a Spanish-language magazine published in Latin America, Vision would change its name to Film Comment.
Vision’s contents provided hints but few clear signposts to the direction the magazine eventually was to follow. Eccentric and eclectic, Vision delved into Hollywood, foreign, experimental, and documentary films. Reportage, amateur sociology, and aesthetic judgments commingled: articles on “anti-Negro” propaganda in films followed analyses of “the teen-age box office;” critiques of New Wave films shared editorial space with ruminations on abstract cinema.
Although this jumble of topics and approaches was obviously indicative of a still-embryonic editorial stance, it was also an accurate reflection of the multifaceted New York independent and experimental film scene of the early Sixties. Although the magazine eventually was to oppose as much as support many of the avant-garde film movement’s principal tenets and exponents, the magazine and the movement were born of the same independent spirit; their development was contemporaneous and their linkage significant. Joseph Blanco, publisher of Vision’s first two issues, acknowledged this relationship in his introduction to the inaugural issue: “With the increasing interest in the motion picture as an art form, and with the rise of the New American Cinema, Vision takes its place as a publication for the independent film maker and those who share a sincere interest in the unlimited scope of the motion picture.”
Vision’s ties to the new American Cinema movement, however, were stronger than a common eclecticism and a few shared attitudes and ideas. The magazine’s editor, Gordon Hitchens, had already served as a kind of Maxwell Perkins to New York’s film avant-garde. The son of thriller novelists Bert and Dolores Hitchens (her Band of Outsiders was filmed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1966), Hitchens was attending Columbia University after serving in World War II and a long stint as a merchant marine. Despite a predilection toward documentary film,Hitchens struck up acquaintanceships with a number of New York-based avant-garde film personalities such as Jonas Mekas and Gregory Markopoulos. Some of these independents published newsletters featuring classified advertisements and short critical pieces that Hitchens unflatteringly describes as “sloppy writing.” Hitchens, who was then contributing short reviews and articles to the Columbia Spectator, volunteered his services as editor. The filmmakers , Hitchens says, “felt that I was sufficiently independent of all of them to be trusted as a kind of arbiter or arbitrator and editor who could reconcile their differences.” His offer was accepted, and in 1959 Hitchens began editing their copy. It was in the soil of this experience that Vision’s seeds were planted.
In the chorus of struggling film magazines Vision was an adolescent voice subject to unexpected changes; a voice shaped by its artistic environment but independent of any fixed ideology. As Hitchens notes: “The important thing is that we began without a lot of a priori preconceptions, elaborate philosophical rhetoric, [or] grandiose schemes. It was pretty much of a flexible, ad hoc, loose association of a few people. “
That “loose association of a few people” included: Hitchens, the magazine’s editor and most prolific writer; Blanco, the magazine’s first publisher, who donated money, time, and a few short articles; Mary Batten, a regular contributor to the early issues, who served as circulation manager; Harry Gantt, printing consultant, who arranged matters with the printer and helped with technical aspects of design and circulation; Clara Hoover, author of a number of articles, who assumed the publisher’s position with the third issue; and Diana Macbeth, Hitchens’ wife, who was credited as “assistant to the editor,” but who, as Hitchens points out, “gave a lot of free work to Film Comment. To this day she rebukes me for not having acknowledged her more as a valuable aspect of Film Comment’s survival. She and I together kept that thing going for twenty-four issues while the Blancos were dropping out and the Hoovers came in and out.”
Financing for the first two issues was a haphazard affair. Hitchens says that “we sort of pulled together a few bucks here and there. Probably me and Joe Blanco put in most of it.” No one was paid; Hitchens worked at other jobs to support himself and his family. The early issues, in particular, showed evidence of this amateurism: numerous typos, non-justified body type, handlettered headlines, and unimaginative, confusing design. In addition, a parochial, New York-oriented atmosphere prevailed despite the obvious catholicity of subject matter; the magazine seemed cliquish and appeared unconcerned about appealing to a more general audience. It was obvious that Hitchens, who describes himself as having had “almost total editorial control,” still was groping toward a format in these early issues.
By the third issue, however, elements of professionalism asserted themselves, and a distinct editorial personality began to form. The result was a narrowing of the magazine’s field of vision: the early issues’ all-encompassing editorial wide-angle lens was supplanted by the more focused zoom. With this third issue, Film Comment was for the first time calling itself Film Comment.
“I was interested only in the editorial,” Hitchens says. “I didn’t care abou t the commercial aspects.” It was left to Film Comment’s publishers, Clara Hoover and then Austin Lamont, to keep the magazine afloat financially and provide readers with a well-designed, punctual, and professional publication.
When Blanco, Film Comment’s original publisher, left the magazine after two issues because of waning interest and severe emphysema, the publication was still in need of much care. Without someone willing to assume the publisher’s position, the magazine was in danger of dying. Clara Hoover (now Clara Hendin), a wealthy aspiring actress with an interest in the arts, luckily was available to fill the void. As Hitchens says, “She saved the magazine, no question. “
Hoover initially had become involved with the magazine through her close friend Mary Batten, one of Film Comment’s original staff members. Although not officially recognized on the masthead until the third issue, Hoover had helped assemble and package the magazine from the outset. She states that “it was very romantic, those issue numbers one through three: typing them up ourselves, sitting on the floor of Gordon and Diana’s apartment to paste them up.” Given this early involvement and her fairly substantial financial resources (she had a trust-fund income 0[$2,500 a month), Hoover became a natural candidate for the publisher’s position after Blanco’s departure. With the third issue (Fall 1962) Lorien Productions, Hoover’s corporation “formed to cover investments in artistic enterprises,” assumed ownership of the magazine. Hoover held all rights to the Film Comment name.
Hoover remained as publisher for twelve issues (Fall 1962 to Fall 1965), a period during which the magazine was transformed from a grow-your-own magazine to a slick, stable, professional publication. Although Film Comment’s bills were relatively small—offset by advertising revenue, an unpaid staff, and a small print run (3,500 at its largest)—it nevertheless was Hoover’s guaranteed source of financing that was primarily responsible for the magazine’s metamorphosis. Her financial contributions were responsible for the introduction of typesetting (Winter 1963), the upgrading and standardization of design (Summer 1963), and the institution of a strict quarterly schedule. As managing editor, Hoover dealt with printers, distributors, subscribers, and advertisers. According to Hoover, her basic task was “to hold the thing together and get it out on time.”
By 1965, however, Hoover had grown weary of the constant pressures of publication; in particular, chronically missed deadlines by Hitchens had worn her patience thin. Although she describes the editor as a “fellow of energy, dedication and knowledge,” she nevertheless “got tired of dragging issue after issue out of him on a reasonable schedule. [I] tired of staying up several nights each time in order to get the layouts pasted up by the printing deadline.”
Basically, says Hoover, “it was a matter of ‘burning out’ after several years of this constant worry about late material,” and, in the Summer 1965 issue, Hoover announced her departure. Hitchens claims Hoover’s departure was further precipitated by a drug raid at her townhouse in May 1965. According to Hitchens, there was a big family scandal. Since numerous theater people were involved in the incident, Hitchens believes Hoover became “thoroughly disenchanted after that spell with the arts and finally dissented and cut out all these frivolous philanthropies of hers.” Hoover, however, calls this “romantic nonsense” and emphatically denies any relationship between the two events. She also points out that her case was never brought to trial because the evidence-a half pound of hashish-had been seized illegally. Hitchens describes Hoover’s leave-taking as a “body blow to Film Comment” but acknowledges that “she had helped us survive and given us a strong start.”
Nor had Hoover simply abandoned Film Comment: Before her retirement, Hoover had sold her rights to the Film Comment name to Hitchens for one dollar, and her family attorneys had set up “the Film Comment Foundation, Inc.,” a nonprofit membership corporation organized under New York state law.” Although Hoover’s departure left the magazine without sufficient guaranteed financial backing, these legal maneuvers enabled Hitchens to gain easier access to the foundation and grant support necessary for the magazine’s survival. In this fashion, Film Comment managed to survive almost exclusively on grants and handouts.
After three issues and three years of struggle, however, it became clear that the foundation was an unworkable solution to Film Comment’s financial woes. Hitchens had been successful in raising donations from a wide variety of sources ($2,000 from the New York State Council on the Arts, free type composition from the Arno Press for the Fall-Winter 1967 issue, $5,000 from the Avon Foundation of Saint Paul, Minnesota), but the foundation was proving, in Hitchens’ words, “a tremendous drain on all of us because it was not a profitable situation and what income we had was burned up with expenses.” The magazine’s “chronic financial loss” of $8,000 annually continued unabated, and its shaky quarterly schedule collapsed entirely (only two issues were published in the years 1966 and 1967). Without a steady source of financing, Film Comment was once again at debt’s door.
The magazine’s eventual resuscitator was Austin F. Lamont, a Boston filmmaker who had been associated with the magazine in a peripheral way from its earliest days, first as a subscriber and later as an occasional contributor. His first contact with Hitchens had been inauspicious enough-a letter of complaint about the sporadic nature of the first volume’s publishing schedule-but Hitchens had replied to that letter, acknowledging the magazine’s problems and asking for help. It was this request that led to two articles by Lamont (Fall 1963 and Spring 1964) and eventually to a short stay on the magazine’s editorial staff in the summer of 1966. Hitchens, says Lamont, was attending film festivals in Europe that summer and “needed someone to run the magazine.” Lamont assented to help, stayed in Hitchens’ apartment in New York for the summer, and, he says, “started to learn how to run a magazine.”
This brush with the editing and publishing end of the magazine piqued Lamont’s curiosity, and although he assumed a teaching post at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, in the fall of 1967, he remained interested in maintaining his relationship with Film Comment.
Luckily, a light teaching load gave Lamont adequate time to pursue other interests; accordingly, he wrote to Hitchens and volunteered his services. Hitchens accepted Lamont’s offer, and with the Summer 1968 issue Lamont assumed the position of managing editor. Lamont says he and Hitchens “split the responsibilities” of running the magazine: Hitchens handled the editorial chores, and Lamont sent the edited material to design and paste-up. Lamont also took on other important duties, chiefly the correction of persistent errors and inadequacies on the part of the magazine in the areas of copyright law and postal regulations. (According to Hitchens, Lamont discovered that certain issues of the magazine had automatically entered the public domain because of improper copyright registration.) With a colleague at Ohio University, graphic designer Karen Nulf, Lamont also considerably upgraded the quality of the magazine’s design with varied typefaces, a cleaner, more open look, and a more liberal and integrated use of photographs and stills. (Nulf is now the art director of Wide Angle, the film magazine published by Ohio University.)
As with Hoover, however, Lamont’s contributions to the look and professionalism of the magazine were perhaps outweighed by his monetary support. Lamont, who had “inherited some money” from his grandfather, was contributing time but also helping support the magazine with financial aid. His first issue as managing editor was also the first published by the Film Comment Publishing Corporation-headed by Hitchens but largely financed by Lamont-which replaced the collapsed foundation. Lamont thus was the de facto publisher of the magazine for three issues (Summer 1968 to Spring 1969). Finally, with the Fall 1969 number, Lamont formally assumed the reins of Film Comment and took over all expenses. Lamont paid $50,000 to Hitchens for clear title and ownership of the magazine; Hitchens remained as editor, but his position was for the first time defined exclusively as an employee. Lamont, a secondary figure for much of Film Comment’s life, thus assumed the primary role in shaping the magazine’s future.
A magazine must first be written before it can be published. While these behind-the-scenes machinations involving Film Comment’s publishers were taking place, Hitchens was developing a stable of contributors who were helping to give the magazine shape, purpose, and direction. Some were critics who shared Hitchens’ belief in a sociological and historical approach to film—such writers as Harriet Polt (four articles), film historian Herman Weinberg (seven articles), and the late Edith Laurie (ten articles). But the most important group of regular contributors to the magazine were working filmmakers. Hitchens states: “I felt it very important to get filmmakers to write…. A filmmaker is very closely involved in and aware of the contrivance of a film, the seeming reality of it, [and] I wanted writers [who] would take the mystery out of the thing.” Over the years, Hitchens enlisted Gregory Markopoulos, Dan Drasin, Arthur Barron, Emile de Antonio, and William Bayer.
By far the most significant of these filmmakers, however, was James Blue. Blue’s relationship with Film Comment dated as far back as 1963, when his film The Olive Trees of Justice received much praise and attention, including an interview with Mary Batten. Later in the Sixties, Blue was a colleague of Hitchens at the United States Information Agency (USIA), where, according to historian Richard Dyer MacCann, he “was one of the men the USIA depended on most.” These ties and a developing friendship with Hitchens led to Blue’s eventual contribution to the magazine, and once on board he quickly established himself as “Film Comment’s best contributor during its first decade” (Hitchens, in an obit in Film Comment in 1981).
BIue’s extensive knowledge of film, his status as an award-winning filmmaker, and his considerable writing and interviewing skills helped establish the magazine’s “early identity and commitment to the social aspects of cinema.” Hitchens goes so far as to say it was Jim Blue upon whom the magazine’s “personality and reputation were founded.” Two articles and seven interviews served as cornerstone to Hitchens’s editorial foundation-and Film Comment stood solidly on both.
The Sixties: II A Social Conscience
However vital the contributions of Film Comment’s publishers and writers, it was Gordon Hitchens who truly established the magazine’s identity. With the exception of one issue (Summer 1963, edited by Peter Goode while Hitchens was in Africa), Hitchens was the magazine’s sole arbiter regarding content. Hitchens’ interests and prejudices were the magazine’s; it was his personality that governed and controlled.
Film Comment was never to become doctrinaire in its approach; Hitchens’ interests were too broad-ranging and his philosophy too democratic to permit that. His magazine, however, did come to evince strong editorial preferences that severely limited discussion of many film topics. Chief among these least-favored notions were Hollywood and the avant-garde. Although Film Comment did publish the occasional sympathetic piece on the commercial cinema (Peter Bogdanovich on Mr. Arkadin in the first issue, Andrew Sarris on Otto Preminger in the third), the magazine’s Hollywood coverage was infrequent, its tone derisory. Today Hitchens says only: “We felt that the Hollywood film was adequately covered by other periodicals and by the TV medium and the daily newspaper…. We didn’t want to redundantly repeat what had been said and done.” And so, while other film magazines were elevating the Hollywood film to paradigmatic status, Film Comment treated the subject with Olympian disdain.
Considering Film Comment’s early ties to the independent New American Cinema, the magazine’s slighting of Hollywood is logical—and its snubbing of the avant-garde should be puzzling. But by the mid-Sixties independent film was veering away from the documentary and naturalistic fiction and toward experimentation and formalism. Furthermore, as Gregory Battcock wrote in 1967: “The entire, and only, purpose of every [avant-garde film] is to express the artistic intention of its maker.” Hitchens found this emphasis on personal expression distasteful, for the same reasons that the debate over the relative merits of the Hollywood film seemed to him essentially irrelevant and unproductive. “We had a lot of doubts about the Mekas group, the Film Culture kind of reader, the aesthete,” Hitchens says. “They lacked political balls and awareness. They had no social commitment and were elitist, concerned with self-expression while people were starving. We felt that that was infantile, narcissistic, and self-infatuated.”
As with Hollywood, Film Comment did print occasional pieces on the experimental cinema (including, in Vision #1, an odd precis of sorts for a work in progress, Operation Narqo, an “all heroin comedy”). In the main, however, Film Comment’s editorial approach to the avant-garde was succinctly expressed by Joseph Blanco in the first issue: “Most of our new filmmakers aggressively tout themselves as artists, and to prove this claim they constantly search for new ways to be different at all costs . . . . These films amount to masturbation in public view. As experiments, so-called, they over-emphasize form and technique at the expense of theme and content.” For Hitchens, too, the authorial voice so important to the avant-garde filmmakers and auteur critics meant little, if nothing of significance was being said; form, technique, and an individual sensibility were simply not sufficient. “I felt that the film had to be discussed in terms of its national industry and personality,” Hitchens says. “The social-political context must be included.”
So the magazine’s emphasis was placed not on judgment or evaluation but on facts. “What the film art badly needs, especially in America,” Hitchens wrote in a review of Pauline Kael’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968) “is in-depth research, documentation, primary discoveries, [and] an historical sense.” Film Comment was designed to fill at least some of those needs. As Michael Sragow wrote in 1970 upon Hitchens’ departure as editor: “If much of what Hitchens printed was not critical in a cultural sense, it was good muck-raking over institutions and issues of vital importance to those concerned with film’s social involvement and survival.” Hitchens put it rather more bluntly in Film Comment’s “first policy statement” (Summer 1965): “While Critic A in Magazine B froths at the mouth about Truth and Artistic Integrity, we demonstrate in dry, factual detail that American tax-payers are sponsoring a fake battle film that promotes murder in Vietnam.” And the year before, Andrew Sarris described Film Comment as “virtually unique in its espousal of social causes connected with cinema.”
Hitchens’s editorial goal was to present as many sides of an issue as possible and allow readers to “make up their own minds what their sense of ethics requires them, if anything.” The editor determined the agenda-the issues to be discussed and the format to be used-and then chose to be a participant in the debate rather than its controller. Today Hitchens says: “I’ve always felt about Film Comment that it should have been more aggressively a forum, platform, collection, or composite of points of view-whether the editor agrees or disagrees-as long as the person expressing the critical viewpoint is coherent, intelligent, and honest.”
At times readers vehemently disagreed with Hitchens’ liberality in these matters. In Film Comment’s Winter 1965 issue, for example, Hitchens devoted six articles to the work of the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will, Olympia, Tiefland). Numerous readers lodged protests, with many criticizing Hitchens’ tentative interview with the director. The editor stood his ground, writing in the Summer 1965 issue: “I think that Film Comment has performed a service to readers by our having printed this Riefenstahl material. Obviously the woman is important. As journalists, we got the story-her new African film, her forthcoming lecture tour of American schools, her settlement of ownership litigation and the re-issue of her old films. That’s news. That’s a scoop, son. That’s why we’re here.”
The traditional documentary, cinema verite, censorship, racism, and the Hollywood blacklist were among Film Comment’s preoccupations in the Hitchens years. But the most provocative subject, and one given considerable space in the magazine, was film propaganda-especially as practiced in the Vietnam years by the United States Information Agency. It was a subject that Hitchens and James Blue, among other Film Comment contributors, knew from the inside out: They had made films for the agency.
The USIA, officially established in 1953, is the propaganda arm of the United States foreign policy establishment. (The agency was reorganized in 1976 and is now known as the United States International Communications Agency. Its function essentially remains unchanged.) The agency’s avowed aim is informational and cultural exchange with other states, but heavy emphasis is placed in this exchange on the United States’ positive contributions. Hitchens, who had worked on six USIA films , admitted the need for its role in disseminating information but faulted the policies developed and the means employed. In the main, Film Comment’s articles on the agency were sharply critical; in one, Hitchens characterized the USIA as “the greatest propaganda machine in world history.”
The magazine devoted extensive attention and criticism to the agency’s misuse of stock footage and its occasional staging of fictional scenes in supposed documentaries. In Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, a USIA film on John F. Kennedy that received a rare theatrical release, director Bruce Herschensohn made frequent use of scenes and shots that had appeared in previous USIA productions. Film Comment’s objection was not to Herschensohn’s use of this material (an obvious necessity given the nature of the project) but to the director’s misrepresentations of that footage-misrepresentations that Hitchens, as part of a 30-page section on the film , described as “mischievous and malicious little manipulations.” One such sequence, purporting to show Peace Corps volunteers, was in fact lifted from an unrelated documentary, Crossroads in Africa, directed by Hitchens.
Film Comment was even more critical of USIA films on the Vietnam War. As early as the Spring 1965 issue within two months of the introduction of U.S. combat troops to Southeast Asia -the magazine was substantiating UPI reporter Peter Arnett’s charges that the USIA had staged battle scenes for its purported documentary Night of the Dragon, a film that overtly approved of American intervention. Throughout the Sixties Film Comment published a wealth of material concerning USIA Vietnam films and related issues: frame blowups and transcripts of Viet Cong, U.S. Army, and privately sponsored Vietnam propaganda films; interviews with North Vietnamese filmmakers; and reports on antiwar and anti-Vietnam war films.
Perhaps the most significant of the magazine’s many Vietnam pieces was a long interview with William Bayer, a USIA films officer and one-time Film Comment contributor, who had worked extensively on USIA Vietnam projects. The interview, which originally identified Bayer only as an anonymous USIA “speaker,” was described by Hitchens as “an account in the first-person-singular by an experienced eyewitness of and participant in certain important film events in Vietnam during the 1960’s…. We offer readers this article as a benchmark or fixed moment in time and place, in regard to film propaganda, form, content, tone and style.” True to Hitchens’s claims, the Bayer piece was a balanced and detailed exploration both of USIA Vietnam-related productions and of United States government- sponsored film propaganda in general. Despite its lack of any especially shocking or disturbing revelations, the transcript of the seven-hour session nevertheless remains a fascinating window on the bureaucratic mazes, often corrupt practices, skewed aims, and small and large compromises involved in government filmmaking during the charged and volatile Vietnam era.
The Bayer interview was not published without difficulties and compromises of its own. Bayer originally had agreed to the interview in December 1965, shortly before he was to resign his USIA post. Subsequent to the taping, however, Bayer decided to remain with the agency and requested that publication of the interview be postponed. At Blue’s urging, Hitchens reluctantly agreed to hold the piece to a later date. Three years later, however, after Bayer had left the agency in May 1968, Hitchens published the interview without first clearing the article with Bayer. Bayer was understandably upset by Hitchens’ failure to consult him and was equally distraught by the cloak of anonymity Hitchens had thrown over him.
Ironically, Film Comment’s critism of the USIA came at a time of artistic and political power at the agency-a result of the efforts of its director, George Stevens, Jr., who would later become director, then chairman, of the American Film Institute. Wrote Hitchens in 1980: “George Stevens, Jr., came in from Hollywood, with new contacts and ideas, … and he imaginatively sought fresh new talent, deemphasizing USIA’s hitherto heavy and obvious propaganda.” But as the United States (and thus the agency) became more deeply involved in the Vietnam conflict, Hitchens began to plumb his inside sources—”I knew a lot of USIA filmmakers , some of whom were disgruntled and frustrated”—and generate the magazine’s articles on questionable USIA practices and activities.
Since many of Film Comment’s contributors (Blue most prominently) were employed in various capacities by the USIA, mining this rich ore involved elements of professional peril. According to Hitchens, “There were plenty of things that happened to indicate the agency was not indifferent to stuff that we were printing. The agency was really gunning for us.” Hitchens claims that his mail was watched and his phone tapped. He cannot document these allegations but cites his government file—obtained under the Freedom of Information Act—as substantiation. “I got back my file of 82 pages,” says Hitchens, “which included a lot of juicy stuff. I was amazed at the extent to which they were documenting my activities.” In addition, Hitchens says a phone company employee confirmed that his “phone was wired in such a way as to be tapped.” On one occasion, says Hitchens, Stevens tried to dissuade Film Comment from publishing USIA-related information: “One night he called me [for] 90 minutes, begging me not to print certain stuff that he knew I had.” Hitchens, however, remained unmoved by such entreaties, and Film Comment continued to publish USIA material-both positive and negative-until the end of his editorship.
It is to Film Comment’s credit that this harassment, both actual and potential, never prevented an article from—finding its way into print. Hitchens, however, did not consider his decision to publish USIA-related material to be particularly bold, because he did not regard the magazine and agency as antagonists. Film Comment was also careful to disassociate itself from any specific political party or position, right or left; Hitchens says, “We wanted to be independent yet committed.” He contends, in fact, that he “was printing the whole spectrum of pro and con on the subject [Vietnam] as expressed on film. In my odd way, I was very neutral and objective in my handling of all that.”
The USIA and Vietnam articles thus were not editorials decrying government actions; they were instead conscious attempts to provide the “documentation” and “historical sense” Hitchens found lacking in American film criticism. Although unafraid to feature controversial political issues in Film Comment’s columns, Hitchens refused to allow editorial commentary to take precedence over research and reporting. In his mind, to have done otherwise—to have openly declared his opposition to the Vietnam War, for example—was to compromise the magazine’s integrity and dilute the impact of its investigations. Film Comment thus was kept relatively free of doctrine or dogma; the magazine had no party line. Propaganda, to Hitchens, always remained a subject to report on, not a practice to engage in.
The Seventies I: Beyond Survival
In July 1970, Gordon Hitchens—the man principally responsible for Film Comment’s creation, growth, and editorial development-was replaced as the magazine’s editor by Richard Corliss. This event was the culmination of forces set in motion in June 1969, and it was to have a profound effect on the magazine’s future.
When Austin Lamont assumed the managing editor’s position, with the Summer 1968 issue, he was teaching at Ohio University; Hitchens was soliciting and editing material in New York and then mailing the articles and photographs to Lamont for typesetting, layout, and assembly into an issue. This arrangement led to troublesome and persistent problems, and Lamont says that, on the whole, it “was a very frustrating experience for me. Most of the time Gordon would not stick to deadlines that he himself imposed.” Letters and phone calls of complaint had no impact, and Lamont was unable to effect any change in the magazine’s timetable: The Winter 1968-69 and Summer 1969 issue dates were simply skipped.
Hitchens readily admits that “generally speaking, I liked long articles, even if the issue would come out late.” A superior editorial product-virtually Hitchens’ sole concern-was important, of course, but Lamont was acutely aware that Second Class mailing privileges, newsstand space, advertising revenue, and subscription sales (particularly to libraries) were dependent not only on the quality of the magazine but on its timely publication. As time went on, this disagreement over Hitchens’ lack of punctuality generated ever more friction, and Lamont says that “Gordon and I became increasingly at odds over the way to run the magazine.”
By the time Lamont left Ohio U niversity and returned to his home in Boston in 1969, he had decided to alter significantly his relationship with the magazine. Hitchens and Lamont’s initial contract had established a partnership, with Lamont serving as managing editor and Hitchens as editor. This arrangement was obviously unsatisfactory to Lamont for two related reasons: his inability to alter Hitchens’ business practices (Lamont felt Hitchens was ignoring all commercial considerations) and his failure to assert any real control over Film Comment’s publishing schedule. Lamont wanted a new contract which would increase his authority in these areas. He says, “I don’t know if I ever consciously said to myself, ‘Boy, you could publish a film magazine. ‘ It just sort of evolved.” Lamont came to believe-particularly after extensive conversations with distributors, advertisers, and publishers that he “could do a better job than Gordon had as publisher,” and that he likely could not publish the magazine if Hitchens remained.
Lamont, of course, could have abandoned Film Comment (which probably would have resulted in the magazine’s folding) and started afresh, but since Film Comment was established and had “a good reputation,” Lamont felt that it was less complicated “to replace Gordon than to start a new magazine.” He retained Tobias J. Bermant, an attorney with legal experience in the publishing field, to negotiate a settlement with this end in mind, and, in June 1969, Lamont bought the rights to and assets of Film Comment for $50,000. Hitchens surrendered all control of the magazine and was given a one-year contract as editor, subject to Lamont’s renewal. If Lamont and Hitchens had been able to come to terms with each other during the editor’s first year under this agreement, it is possible that Hitchens could have remained. Hitchens, however, was unable “to effect a long term, equitable relationship with Lamont,” and, in July 1970, he was replaced, ending his eight-year term at the magazine’s helm.
The reason for Hitchens’ departure was not, as Lamont points out, “a matter of simple logistics, but also a fundamental difference of opinion on how to operate a magazine. [Hitchens] was incapable of: meeting deadlines, selecting content to sell more magazines, structuring the publishing requirements to get the lowest cost from suppliers, the most advertising, and so forth. In other words, he isn’t a businessman.” Hitchens, for his part, thought Lamont had “no brain for journalism.” He acknowledged the superiority of Lamont’s business sense but believed that in requesting length limitations for articles, rigid deadlines, and features on less obscure topics, Lamont was encroaching on editorial territory, an area in which Hitchens believed Lamont had only limited talent.
Lamont denies that his suggestions infringed upon Hitchens’ editorial authority: “I wanted to have more articles about widely known films. That doesn’t mean that I wanted to exclude obscure films.” Hitchens interpreted this attitude as a desire on Lamont’s part “to take Film Commentaway from controversy, to take it away from ‘dangerous radicalism.’” Lamont replies that he had no quarrel with controversy: “In fact, he [Hitchens] did print controversial stuff, and controversy is what sells magazines.”
Given these fundamental differences between Hitchens and Lamont, there was actually little doubt that Hitchens would be replaced at the end of his first year as hired editor. His final departure was, in Lamont’s words, “not particularly cordial.” In fact, Hitchens claims that he filed suit against Lamont in 1969, charging editorial interference in violation of their partnership contract. Lamont says he has no memory of this legal action, and Tobias Bermant, Lamont’s attorney, says he has “no record of any litigation between Mr. Lamont and Mr. Hitchens.” It is likely that Hitchens was preparing to bring suit before the sale of the magazine was settled.
Hitchens had sold the magazine not because he had desired to disassociate himself from it permanently, but because he had tired of the endless difficulties he encountered in locating independent financing. Hitchens says that when Lamont “offered to buy the magazine outright and keep me on salary as editor, I felt I could accept that.” Unlikely as it might have been, Hitchens no doubt harbored hopes that he could work out his differences with Lamont and remain as Film Comment’s editor. When that failed to occur, Hitchens was understandably upset; he says, in fact, that “I would still, at this moment, like to edit a magazine.” Nonetheless, Hitchens does admit that “I did it all knowingly,” and when the time came to take his leave, his published words were surprisingly free of acrimony. In a short farewell article in the Summer 1970 issue, he ruefully summed up his eight years with the magazine: “What a struggle it has been!—the best and worst of my life.”
Hitchens’ successor, Richard Corliss, was an experienced free-lancer (his work had appeared in the New York Times, Film Quarterly, Variety, and Commonweal, and he had served as film critic for National Review from 1966 to 1970) and a one-time contributor to Film Comment (his Columbia University master’s thesis on the Legion of Decency ran for 20,000 words in the Summer 1968 issue on Catholicism and film). For all his writing credits, however, Corliss at 25 was an editing tyro; he had “never seen a galley” before his first issue of Film Comment. Oddly, Lamont considered Corliss’ neophyte status “an asset. I could set the requirements for being editor. … They were requirements that I thought were not unreasonable, and if he [Corliss] were in that particular routine from the beginning I figured it would greatly enhance the possibility that we could get the magazine out on time.” Lamont thus was careful to assert his authority from the outset: Corliss was to have a relatively free hand in editorial matters, but Lamont was to have final control, particularly in the area of scheduling.
Corliss’s actual hiring was conducted in a rather relaxed manner given the vital nature of the editor’s position. No search for a replacement was ever formally initiated, and Lamont states that “there really wasn’t any competition for editor. I just sort of told everybody that I was looking for an editor.” Two influential friends of Lamont’s-Willard Van Dyke, director of The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film (where Corliss was serving a two-year internship) and George Amberg, chairman of the graduate Cinema Studies program at NYU (where Corliss was a doctoral candidate)- recommended the young writer. In November 1969, at a luncheonette in Greenwich Village, “Corliss showed up,” recalls Lamont, “we talked, and he seemed like the right guy.” By that disarmingly simple process, Corliss was hired, and with the Fall 1970 issue he officially became Film Comment’s editor.
Corliss’ Film Comment was to be a strikingly different magazine from Hitchens’. Corliss states that “Gordon was more interested in social issues or at least more interested in having them represented in Film Comment.” Corliss, by contrast, was more intent on investigating the aesthetics of film. Under Corliss, Film Comment was to take an entirely different road, using as its map the auteur theory, a decade-old but still-controversial development in the field of film study that had stimulated a new awareness of the Hollywood film. Corliss states: “When I took over Film Comment, I noticed that for all the flurry—although the auteur wave was beginning to crest in the United States—there wasn’t a single magazine that concentrated on American film history.” The new Film Comment thus was designed to “pick up four decades of critical slack” and become that “single magazine.”
In his search for Hitchens’ replacement, Lamont had specifically sought an editor who could restructure Film Comment to fill this same film-magazine void. Although himself a champion of independent cinema, Lamont states that he “was interested in publishing a magazine that would be widely circulated, and I knew if it concentrated on independent film it would not be widely circulated. I wanted the magazine to have a lot of stuff about mainstream films” for purely commercial reasons, and an editor with knowledge of and an interest in American film thus was vital. Corliss, a product of the auteur movement and a Hollywood devotee, fit Lamont’s needs perfectly.
Ironically, during his early years as a critic Corliss admits that he “was in the thrall of Ingmar Bergman” and had concentrated much of his energies on foreign cinema. At NYU, however, Corliss became a student of Andrew Sarris, and his dormant interest in American movies was reawakened. Despite Sarris’s influence, Corliss was not an auteurist in an absolute sense; in fact, he eventually would mount a persuasive challenge to the director-oriented bias of auteurism with both articles in Film Comment and his own book Talking Pictures. Nevertheless, Corliss shared with auteurism an admiration for and love of the classic American film, and Film Comment’s editorial format was altered dramatically to accommodate this interest in Hollywood. Corliss also cites a more pragmatic reason: the three-and-a-half-month lead time from submission of an article to actual publication caused by the distance between Film Comment’s editorial offices in New York and its publishing center in Boston. This long lead time precluded discussion of current films because the films had disappeared from theaters by the time the magazine reached the stands. Older films, on the other hand, received constant play in repertory houses and on television.
The influence of auteurism was evident from Corliss’ first issue, which featured a lengthy new section (Film Favorites) spotlighting old Hollywood movies, as well as Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1970.” Lamont himself had reservations about auteurism, but he felt that the shift in emphases was “good for circulation.” As Corliss notes, “You could say there were more readers interested in reading about old Hollywood movies than there were about new Rumanian ones.” Film Comment thus entered the new decade with a new format, a new editor, and a new approach to film.
The Seventies II: An Individual Voice
Although auteurism—by stimulating a new interest in American film—laid the foundation upon which Corliss’ Film Comment was to be built, other influences and considerations had equally major roles in determining the magazine’s overall design. Long before the advent of auteurism, for example, there existed a strong tradition of American film criticism that was distinguished by a kind of feet-on-the-floor social impressionism- the writings of Otis Ferguson, James Agee, and Manny Farber in the Thirties and Forties, and Pauline Kael in the Fifties and Sixties.
Under Corliss, Film Comment did not stray too far from this path: despite occasional forays into more abstract territory, theoretical topics were seldom engaged by Film Comment writers. Like his predecessors, Corliss was principally concerned with “capturing on paper the style and content of movies,” not in constructing a general film system. This is not to imply that the new Film Comment was anti-intellectual or simpleminded in its approach, merely that criticism, analysis, and judgment—as opposed to theory or reporting (Hitchens’ primary interest)-were Corliss’ goals. Already bolstered by tradition, this approach was supported further by its mass appeal: Lamont and Corliss, after all, wanted their magazine to sell not only to academics but to film enthusiasts of all sorts.
Even more than tradition or commercial considerations, however, Corliss’ desire to avoid the stuffy, academic style that characterizes much of film writing—particularly when theoretical in orientation—was his most important structural consideration in drawing up the magazine’s final blueprint. The writing Corliss most admired and wanted emulated in his magazine was witty, erudite, and stylistically strong: the work of intelligent, practical critics who not only knew their subjects but could write about them with vigor and craft. Corliss’ periodical thus was designed to be as much a writer’s magazine as an auteurist’s platform.
Issue by issue, Corliss’ Film Comment may appear to be an eclectic, haphazard collection of conflicting opinions. In fact, the magazine’s authors—unique and “criminally eccentric” (Corliss’ term) though they may be—have had their attitudes shaped by the same authors and experiences. It may be true that Film Comment, in Corliss’ words, “does not have a line,” but it does have a unifying sensibility. The common threads of knowledge that entangle Film Comment’s writers also serve to knit the magazine together.
Another influence on Corliss’ criticism was Time magazine in the Fifties and Sixties. Corliss became a movie and TV reviewer for Time in June 1980, but he claims that the magazine had helped to shape his style well before that juncture (a claim lent credence by his work as film critic for New Times, 1976-78). Corliss says, in fact, that “when I was hired here, I was told that I was continuing to write in Time style long after Time had abandoned it.” Time style, according to Corliss, was “extremely punchy, epigrammatic, and used words as jokes as well as weapons. The idea was not to put the reader to sleep.” Agee had written for Time from 1939 to 1948, and Manny Farber did a brief stint the following year.
This shortcut method of criticism has its detractors. Dwight Macdonald, for example, derided James Agee’s Time reviews as “clever hack work” that contrasted sharply with his “more serious work for The Nation.” Others, however, support Corliss’ view: Manny Farber has said that “Agee’s Time stint added up to a sharp, funny encyclopedia on the film industry during the 1940’s,” and has described Agee’s Nation material as “heavier writing which has a sensitively tinctured glibness.” Whatever the relative merits of Time style, Corliss continues to write in the “punchy, epigrammatic” manner the magazine pioneered. And although Film Comment’s writers are not instructed to follow a similar pattern, many do exhibit a few of the same Time characteristics.
According to Corliss, the two major influences on Film Comment’s development were Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Sarris’ importance is obvious: His legitimization of Hollywood via the auteur theory made Corliss’ Film Comment possible. Corliss also claims that “in the early days, Sarris was very generous and quite important in bestowing a kind of cultural benediction on the magazine.” Kael’s influence was less direct but equally palpable, for she is the central presence in contemporary American film criticism. Corliss’ first issue contained, he says, “three or four articles directly praising her or influenced by her. “ That influence has grown in the years since 1970. “At the moment,” Corliss avers, “everyone is imitating Pauline Kael.”
Gordon Hitchens was able to cite an articulated critical philosophy that governed the selection of the magazine’s content and gave it a clear and cohesive identity; Corliss cannot. The strength of the magazine thus rests on the quality of the individual article and their authors. Although Corliss chooses the writers and assigns the specific topics to be dealt with, Anne Thompson, the magazine’s former associate editor, says Corliss’s “strong sense is to respect the writer, to respect his wishes,” and no attempt is ever made to force a writer to conform to a particular point of view. Corliss says, “No word or phrase or article is too obscure or obscene if I think it is well-written. I tend to stick with writers I like, and the reason I like them is because what they say is exactly what I want to read, and so I don’t change it.”
The initial process of selection, however, was a slow one. For the first issues of his editorship, Corliss says, he chose his writers by simply soliciting work from “people I knew, people I’d gone to school with, people who taught me.” Prominent early contributors included Sarris (a former teacher), Richard Koszarski and Paul Jensen (fellow students), David Bordwell (a Jensen recommendation), and Gary Carey (a former coworker at The Museum of Modern Art). In 1971, Michael Sragow described that editorial mix rather derisively as a blending of “Andrew Sarris and less-talented Village Voice acolytes” and “a trickling of film school PhD candidates,” producing “criticism both florid and stodgy.” As Corliss continued to recruit new authors, however, style and scholarship achieved a certain balance. Writers such as Joseph McBride, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Roger Greenspun—all of whom both wrote and researched well—soon came to be Film Comment regulars.
Two key “acquisitions” to Film Comment in the early Seventies were Raymond Durgnat and Robin Wood, both British critics with established reputations. Durgnat, an iconoclastic critic with a sociological bent and a breathtakingly broad range of interests and expertise, contributed a number of articles to Film Comment between 1973 and 1980. Among the most important of these pieces was his book-length study of director King Vidor (July-August and September-October 1973), which critic Richard T. Jameson called “perhaps the most illuminating ‘book’ on a director in the Seventies.” In his introduction to the article, Corliss described Durgnat’s particular strengths: “Because Durgnat is equally a film historian and a social critic, his insights into Vidor’s work are as informed as they are idiosyncratic…. Indeed, like the filmmaker he so admires, Durgnat contains multitudes.”
Although perhaps a more limited critic than Durgnat, Robin Wood was the most prolific, and arguably the most important, Film Comment author during Corliss’ first decade. Wood’s initial work for Film Comment was largely auteurist in orientation (he had, after all, written two of the seminal auteurist texts, Howard Hawks and Hitchcock’s Films), but, as the decade wore on, Wood learned that “an analysis which ignores the ‘social and political context’ within which a film was made is certain to be impoverished and likely to be misleading.” This lesson-the result of frequent encounters with structuralist critics of Wood’s work-prompted Wood to incorporate the concept of ideology into his criticism. Wood’s evolution as a critic thus became an integral and highly visible part of Corliss’ magazine: Wood’s grapplings with structuralism and his own homosexuality, and his attempts to incorporate elements of both into his basically humanist perspective, were prominently featured in Film Comment throughout the late Seventies.
Important as Durgnat and Wood were to the establishment of Film Comment’s standards of criticism, it cannot be said that their criticism served as models of the magazine’s writing style. Wood’s writing is highly structured and almost schematic, while Durgnat’s is loose and associative; but neither writer’s work can be accurately described as stylistically fine. Instead, the two men who are probably the most representative of “Film Comment style”—other than Corliss, of course, and not forgetting such significant contributors as Stuart Byron, Stephen Harvey, James McCourt, Lawrence O’Toole, Elliott Stein, and Richard Thompson-are Richard Jameson and David Thomson.
Jameson, the editor of Movietone News, has spurted through Film Comment since 1973. James Monaco has described Jameson as “something of a cult object; not widely known, but very highly respected,” and Corliss himself has hailed him as “the best film critic under 40 in the country.” (Both Corliss and Jameson turn 40 this year.) Jameson has garnered this praise by combining an astute eye, a good grasp of camera techniques and mechanics, and excellent descriptive powers with a style that is at film once both marvelously witty and extremely lucid: his articles remain immensely readable even when densely packed with information.
Thomson, an English critic in his mid-40’s with a sharp and cutting pen, is a fairly recent addition to Film Comment’s rolls, but he has become, in short time, the magazine’s best and most consistent contributor. Thomson is a careful stylist, and despite occasional lapses into needless obscurantism or willful perversity, he undeniably ranks among the finest contemporary film critics. As Richard T. Jameson (appropriately enough) has written: “no other writer makes me say I-wish-I’d-said-that as often, even when I disagree with him.”
While Corliss and assistant editor Melinda Ward were restructuring the magazine’s editorial format, changes were occurring on other fronts as well. Under the steadying influence of Austin Lamont, Film Comment’s always precarious financial standing finally solidified. The magazine continued to lose money, but Lamont, unlike Hitchens, was able to bear those losses—at least temporarily—and to insure that a professional, timely publication would be regularly delivered to advertisers and subscribers. This process of stabilization, begun during Hitchens’ final year as editor, continued throughout Lamont’s five-year tenure and eventually culminated in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s assumption of Lamont’s position as publisher.
Having chosen Corliss as his new editor, Lamont concerned himself almost exclusively with the production and financial aspects of running Film Comment. Lamont made no attempt to dictate editorial content, and Corliss says Lamont “was a very supportive and discreet publisher and managing editor. I can’t remember a single instance of him saying something shouldn’t be published because he didn’t like it or because he thought it would offend someone.”
Although Lamont does allow that he sometimes would voice his displeasure over a particular article, he flatly states that “I did not feel that my job was to influence editorial content.” Lamont did lend his aid in the editing of an occasional piece—a package of articles on anthropological film in the Spring 1971 issue, and a few interviews with independent filmmakers—but he says “that was because Richard felt that I would be better than he was at it.”
Lamont’s laissez faire editorial approach did not apply across-the-board, of course, and the publisher’s presence was felt in other areas. As he had with Hitchens, Lamont continued to exercise control over the magazine’s design. The geographic division of Film Comment’s offices to an extent necessitated Lamont’s assumption of this responsibility, but Lamont also claims that Corliss “was interested in the words. He was not interested in the captions or the pictures.” After final editing, Lamont and Martha Lehtola, who designed the magazine from Fall 1970 to May-June 1974, thus had total authority over the magazine’s production. Corliss, like Hitchens, would prepare the editorial material in New York and mail the copy to Lamont in Boston. Working closely with Lehtola, Lamont then would supervise the actual layout of the magazine. Design was an important consideration for Lamont: “We spent a great deal of energy on how the magazine would look…. We felt that if you did a good job there that people just might buy the magazine from the look of it.” Film Comment’s “look,” in fact, did steadily improve under Lamont and Lehtola’s guiding hands. More imaginative and colorful covers, a tighter, less eclectic design format, and a much improved use of stills and frame blowups were direct results of their influence, and Lamont is justifiably proud of Lehtola’s work and contribution to it.
As important as this other work was to the magazine, however, Lamont’s financial and managerial contributions were far more key, for without them the magazine could not have survived. Lamont’s patronage was the linchpin that enabled Film Comment’s wheels to turn: it was his business acumen that brought order to the magazine’s formerly chaotic publishing operation and his generous funding that kept the magazine afloat despite a continuing deficit.
Lamont’s resources were not inexhaustible. Though the magazine’s circulation had more than doubled since 1970, it ran an annual $50,000–$60,000 deficit. Initially, Lamont had been able to offset the deficits with tax write-offs, but after five straight years of losses that means of relief had been withdrawn. Various alternatives were explored: In September-October 1972, for example, Film Comment altered its publishing schedule from quarterly to bimonthly with the hope that the additional issues would generate more revenue. The financial hemorrhaging was never stanched, however, and by 1973, according to Lamont, Film Comment had simply become “too expensive for me to continue.” A new publisher had to be found or the magazine would once again be in danger of dying.
Help finally arrived in the form of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the sponsor of the annual New York Film Festival and several other film-related activities in the New York City area. Corliss had served since 1971 as a member of the New York Film Festival’s selection committee and knew that the Society was interested in finding some way of gaining year-round exposure for its activities. Both Lamont and Joanne Koch, the Film Society’s executive director, expressed interest in the idea; and after consultation with the Society’s then-president Martin Segal, ownership was formally transferred in October 1973. Lamont did not sell the magazine; he gave all rights and assets to the Society. In addition, he agreed to donate $60,000 a year for three years, which was expected to cover Film Comment’s deficit as it swam upstream toward black ink. As a result of the agreement, Lamont was elected to the Society’s board.
The magazine notified its readers of the change in the November-December 1973 issue. In his note to the readers, Lamont wrote: “This arrangement fulfills a long-held goal of Film Comment: to have the protection of a nonprofit corporation, to be able to apply for grants available in the arts field , and to solicit tax-deductible gifts. These considerations are important for there are no film magazines publishing serious film criticism and analysis which are financially successful, and as long-time readers will recall, Film Comment has had a financially unstable past.”
With the May-June 1974 issue-the last to list Lamont as managing editor and the first to identify the Film Society as publisher-the transfer was officially completed; Lamont, through his generosity, had once again rescued Film Comment from extinction. Lamont now says: “I was very happy because I saw it was an opportunity for Film Comment to continue to be published by sincerely enlightened people …. The other alternative—if I couldn’t find anybody who would treat it properly—was to have it stop.” Lamont has continued his association with the magazine as a board member of the Film Society. In 1981, he contributed a lengthy article (“Independents Day”) to the magazine. He currently serves as president of the Boston Film/Video Foundation.
Although the Film Society’s assumption of the publication of Film Comment has had many ramifications, its takeover has had only a limited direct impact on the magazine’s editorial content. Corliss says that “what went for Austin Lamont goes for Joanne Koch [the Society’s executive director]. Joanne and I have had not one discussion on killing an article or running one.” Corliss emphasizes that “a writer can make absolutely any opinion that he wants about anything, including Film Society of Lincoln Center policies or the New York Film Festival.” After the Society takeover, Film Comment did begin featuring New York Film Festival previews and reviews—an obvious bow to the Society’s interests—but the magazine’s reviews have not always been positive and, in fact, have occasionally been brutally critical of certain festival selections.
There have been a few rare instances of obvious boosterism. The March-April 1976 issue, for example, featured a center-spread touting Lincoln Center’s premiere of That’s Entertainment, Part II, a movie to which Film Comment would normally pay scant attention. Corliss admits that “the center-spread was probably not justified,” and says that, “as a matter of fact, our typesetter charged us for an ad rate instead of a text rate for the copy I wrote.” Recently, the magazine has been devoting laudatory articles to film industry figures honored by Film Society tributes: Andrew Sarris on George Cukor, Dick Cavett on Bob Hope, Richard T. Jameson on John Huston, a quartet of writers on Barbara Stanwyck, Tom Allen on Billy Wilder, David Thomson on Laurence Olivier. Despite their obvious promotional value, however, these articles are not simply public relations puffery and can be termed genuine criticism without fear of embarrassment. In general, says Corliss, the Film Society has given him and Ward’s successors—Brooks Riley, Anne Thompson, and Harlan Jacobson—“a totally free hand editorially.”
The Film Society has had some indirect (and generally positive) editorial effects on the magazine. Perhaps the most significant of the changes stimulated by the Society’s takeover was the expansion of the magazine’s coverage of new films: since 1974, Film Comment has been devoting ever more space to contemporary movies and moviemakers. This change in emphases was made possible by the simple consolidation of the magazine’s editorial and publishing offices in New York and the resultant drop in the magazine’s lead time (from more than three months between writing and publication to about one month). Although Corliss admits that “one becomes the handmaiden of the marketing apparatus of any film if one agrees to run an article … around the time the film is released,” he nevertheless defends Film Comment’s coverage of current films. “I do think the contemporaneity helps the magazine: it helps sell it…. One of the reasons we put a photograph of a new film on the cover is to sell our magazine. They’ re not gonna read it if they don’t buy it.” He adds that Michel Ciment, an editor of the French film magazine Positif, had once criticized Film Comment for its reluctance to champion young American directors. “Michel told me a director had to be 75 or dead to get mentioned in Film Comment. That’s not the case anymore.”
Corliss’ philosophy has its critics, of course, and Richard T. Jameson has faulted Film Comment in its own pages for publishing what Jameson calls “instant-analysis tie-ins with brand-new film releases.” Generally speaking, however, the magazine’s material on contemporary films has enabled it to increase its audience without sacrificing quality. The Film Society has also aided the magazine editorially by allowing Film Comment to expand its length from 64 to 80 pages with the January-February 1978 issue. This expansion of Film Comment’s editorial space, according to Corliss, was “a significant editorial victory,” and allowed for the introduction of a “Midsection,” a package of related articles. The “Midsection” concept was proposed by Michael Uris. Uris’ new design—more conservative and structured than the previous Film Comment format, devised in 1974 and executed by art director George Sillas—was introduced in the January-February 1978 issue. Since November 1980 the magazine has been designed by Elliot Schulman, working from Uris’ format.
By far the most precious contribution of the Film Society to Film Comment is its provision of financial stability. Film Comment still incurs losses of approximately $50,000 annually, but because of the Society’s structure and nonprofit status that deficit now can be absorbed without fear of the magazine’s folding. The Society does not encourage profligate spending, however; the magazine is run on an extraordinarily frugal budget. In 1983, operating and administrative costs totaled only $400,000; Film Comment’s contributors were paid about ten cents per word, considerably less than the rate paid by its chief competitor, American Film . In addition, the magazine’s staff has been kept extremely small: two full-time editors, an art director, a business manager, and an advertising and circulation director. Film Comment’s generally efficient operation and the continued growth of its paid circulation (from 9,000 in 1975, the Society’s first full year as publisher, to 31 ,000 in 1983) have even stimulated faint hopes in Joanne Koch that the magazine might someday inch into the black.
Whatever its level of profitability, however, Film Comment for the first time in its existence has finally been provided with a steady source of financing and a rock-solid publishing foundation. With Corliss as its editor, the society as its publisher, and a handful of quality writers as its key contributors, Film Comment now seems assured of continued survival and success.