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Leaving The Times

In the beginning of August, 1969 I joined The New York Times as second-string movie critic, a position that had been vacant since Vincent Canby replaced Renata Adler as first-string critic earlier in the year. At the end of August, 1973 I left The Times, not exactly by my own choice. There is already a minor sub-literature on leaving The Times Stanley Kauffmann’s account of his months as first-string drama critic in New American Review # 1, Renata Adler's introduction to A Year in the Dark—and to add to it at this stage may require some justification. I think that what goes on at The Times in what it calls its culture pages might reasonably be under constant review. The attitudes of The Times critics have a good deal to do with what succeeds, even with what opens, in New York City. And what opens in New York City has almost everything to do with what opens throughout the country. The Times' authority in the arts is not altogether well earned. It is a carry-over mainly from an authority that is well earned in local, national, and international news. But the authority does exist, and the quality of The Times critics has an inescapable effect on the quality of experience that any of us who live with the arts is able to enjoy.

Some of these points are raised by Stanley Kauffmann, whose essay “Drama on The Times,” so far as it treats his own dismissal, is a model of dignified tact. Indeed, his essay is so tactful that to find some of the reasons why he was fired you must turn not to Kauffmann himself but to My Life and “The Times,” a revealing memoir by the then executive editor Turner Catledge, where you will learn that the opinions of Arlene Francis and David Merrick, and of “friends and business associates” of the publisher’s father, and of the publisher’s mother (displeased by a Sunday piece on homosexuals in the theater), all had some bearing on the case. For whatever reason, Kauffmann wrote less gracefully for The Times than he did before and has since for The New Republic, and there were Times editors who complained that they sometimes had to read his reviews twice before they could understand them. But that is a standard complaint, periodically directed against any critic worth reading once. I also heard it, delivered in a tone of shocked incredulity (“Some of the editors had to read your review twice!!”), as if they had discovered I was taking bribes from the booker for the Radio City Music Hall.

But mostly the circumstances of my departure were different from Kauffmann’s. For one thing, I lasted more than four years—though I fell under suspicion not too long after joining The Times. For another, second-string movies is neither so prestigious nor remotely so powerful a position as first-string drama. And for a third, my leaving was not, to the best of my knowledge, the result of outside pressure. So far as I know, it was essentially the wish of one man, A.M. Rosenthal, currently The Times’ managing editor. I began writing about film early in the Sixties, partly as a way of avoiding my Ph.D. dissertation, partly as a way of thinking about material that suddenly seemed as exciting as anything I had come across in English studies. I started publishing occasionally in several magazines, and for all its three issues I assisted James Stoller with his excellent Moviegoer. But I did not appear regularly until the beginning of 1968, when I was offered a berth on the New York Free Press. The Free Press lasted for just over a year. I don’t know what its circulation was. Estimates ranged from about 16,000 (the publisher) to slightly under 1,000 (the circulation manager), but the Free Press did put together some pretty classy criticism, including John Lahr on theater, Gregory Battcock on art, Robert Somma on rock music, and me, often last and least, on film. Among our slightly under 1,000 readers were Seymour Peck, editor of The Times’ Sunday Arts and Leisure section, who had me do a few articles, and Vincent Canby, who had come to The Times from Variety a few years before. It was Canby who suggested me to The Times, and after several rounds of interviews and four months of waiting, I was hired as a reporter and critic. I was told that there were three other serious candidates for the job, though I never did find out who they were.

I functioned as a reporter for a couple of feature stories and a few small news items and that was all. I was probably not much worse than a mediocre reporter, though I found the work nerve-wracking and to a degree antithetical to the distance I needed in writing my reviews. This was a real issue in my first few months on the paper, and when it came to a head—at the end of the trial period specified in the Newspaper Guild contract—I offered to resign and /or to write reviews on a freelance basis, as is standard for some of the reviews in music, art, and dance. As it turned out, the question of reportage was dropped on the grounds, first, that there was more than enough work for a full-time second movie critic, and second, that they felt I had proved even more successful than had been anticipated, that I brought “a new level of sophistication” to film reviewing on the paper—and they didn’t want to lose me. Much later, when they decided to replace me, the Metropolitan Editor, Arthur Gelb (serving somewhat the function of the traditional city editor), told me that my not being a reporter was the major issue. I didn’t believe it then, and I still don’t. They have since hired both a second-string movie critic, Nora Sayre, who so far does no reporting, and a freelance movie reporter, Paul Gardner.

I first learned that I was to lose my job in June 1972. Arthur Gelb, visibly unhappy about his task, had me into his office to tell me the decision. The grounds he stated were 1) that they needed a film reporter and felt they couldn’t get one without offering him the second-string critic’s job as well, and 2) that they wanted somebody “who would just tell people whether they should go out and go to the movies,” though I can’t believe that was exactly what he meant. I’m not sure he knew what he meant. He said I might be a good critic for some publications, but not for The Times, because most readers couldn’t understand me. I mentioned his earlier praise, and he smiled a little and said my work had changed. He also said, “Abe [Rosenthal] feels more strongly about this than I do.” Considering Gelb’s remarkable ability to agree with Rosenthal—a standing joke at The Times—that statement could indicate anything from what it says to complete disagreement. Clifton Daniel, a man who greatly favored the arts, had been managing editor when I was hired, and I felt that the changes were not in my work, but in the attitudes of the paper.

For a long time nothing happened (later I heard that some staff reporters were approached for the job, but none wanted it), and Vincent Canby, who had defended me all along, began to feel that the whole thing had blown over. But at the end of the year, Grace Glueck, recently appointed cultural news editor, announced that they were going to look outside the paper for a replacement, and that I could expect some publicity. The publicity came after they interviewed Richard Schickel, temporarily out of a position when Life Magazine folded. I doubt that Schickel could have wanted the job—at least the job that was being offered—but the news of the interview spread very quickly (I heard of it from three different people in the course of one weekend) and on February 14 the story made Variety.


At the apparent behest of managing editor A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal, The New York Times is interviewing possible replacements for the paper’s second-string film critic, Roger Greenspun. Neither Rosenthal (who is out of the country) nor metropolitan editor Arthur Gelb (currently on vacation) could be reached for confirmation, but it is known that the paper has spoken to Richard Schickel, film critic for the recently folded Life. (Variety left messages for Greenspun but did not hear from him by presstime.)

Rosenthal’s complaint concerning Greenspun appears to stem from two bases: (1) the editor finds the reviewer “too intellectual” for The Times readership and (2) Greenspun has never assumed the film-reporting chores that were intended to be part of the job.

Greenspun, who currently teaches film at Rutgers University in addition to his Times activities, was apparently never happy with the more “digging” aspects of the job, and the paper’s management cooperated by relieving him of these assignments after an initial period. It would now seem, however, that this issue is being resurrected as a support for the more pertinent allegation that Greenspun’s taste is too “rarified” and his interests too “esoteric” for a general newspaper.

While Greenspun was one of the first (and still one of the few) mass-media reviewers to have emerged from the film quarterly underground, his supporters note that his style and taste have evolved considerably from the academic slant that earlier informed his Times notices.

Significantly, he ranked fourth of the 26 Gotham reviewers appraised in Variety last Oct. 25 insofar as his reviews “accurately” reflect commercial success—an evaluation at odds with Rosenthal’s contention that Greenspun’s taste conflicts with the paper’s mass readership.

It is understood that a number of prominent film figures have already come to Greenspun’s defense—including Vincent Canby, The Times’ first-string film reviewer (also now on vacation). A number of more “serious” film people at museums and schools are presently preparing arguments on behalf of Greenspun, citing his considerable knowledgeability of foreign and “underground” features as an asset The Times can ill afford to lose.

[There follows one paragraph of speculation about another candidate for the job, but the speculation came to nothing.]

Perhaps the story gained from the fact that absolutely nobody was available for comment (I was taking a day off in return for overtime work when Variety called); in its assessment of most people’s feeling about the reasons for The Times’ decision, it is accurate so far as I know. Obviously, it didn’t make Rosenthal very happy.

A good many letters apparently were sent in, perhaps several dozen, and I received copies of a few. Most came from private readers; but some also came from university film faculties, from Lincoln Center Film Society and from the museums in New York that show movies. The letters, at least those I saw, were intelligent, tactful, eloquent, and wholly concerned with my work and qualifications as a critic. Rosenthal wrote a form reply. He didn’t begin to answer the letters, at least the ones I saw, but instead characterized the thrust of the Variety story as ludicrous and characterized The Times as “most welcoming of and eager for intellectualism.” He sent me a copy of his reply. I answered him—an answer was clearly expected—and, after thanking him for his courtesy, wrote as strongly as I could:

I can certainly appreciate your interest in defending The Times against the charge of anti-intellectualism—but from whom? The letter from the Museum of Modern Art discusses my contributions and qualities as a film critic, but never mentions anti-intellectualism. Indeed, none of the letters I have seen mentions it. And I wonder if the correspondents—at MOMA, at the Whitney, at Harvard, at the Lincoln Center Film Society, and elsewhere—find it curious that you have chosen not to speak to their comments but rather to answer a charge that they have not made.

However, you may be right to raise the question of anti-intellectualism. It surely was an issue in the Variety piece, and I think it is an issue in fact. I felt it to be an issue last June when Arthur Gelb told me (presumably at your request) that The Times wished to replace me with someone who “would just tell people whether they should go out and go to the movies.” I also felt it to be an issue on three earlier occasions when Arthur (again, presumably at your request) reminded me that I wasn’t writing for 1) The Partisan Review, 2) Commentary, and 3) The New York Review of Books.

In the past The Times’ treatment of its more serious critics of the popular arts, from Stark Young to Stanley Kauffmann, has not been reassuring. I think this may have been in people’s minds when they read the Variety article. For many intelligent and knowledgeable readers I have been a perceptive and sympathetic film critic, and to these readers the news that I might be replaced may seem (as it does to me) grotesque. Such readers may feel that The Times is now reverting to old limitations in dealing with the arts from which we had hoped, for a while at least, that is was breaking free.

Again, thank you for your courtesy in sending a copy of your note.

He lost my letter and I had to send him a copy, which explains the beginning of his memo:

Thank you for sending me the copy of your note. I am sorry the original was misplaced.

I addressed myself in my replies to those who wrote to me to the question of intellectualism because it was raised in the Variety article. It seemed to me, obviously, that those who had written about you either had read the Variety article or had heard about it. To answer a second question raised in your note, I did not choose to speak about the comments the letter writers made about your work for an extremely plain reason, which I stated in my reply: I did not think it proper to discuss the work of a staff member with anybody but that person. Obviously, had I agreed, I would have said so. But I have never and will never make negative comments about anybody who works for this paper to an outsider.

In any case, since the question of intellectualism has been raised and since you comment upon it yourself, I will pursue it.

In some ways, I find your letter quite amusing and I do not say this to hurt you, but simply because that is my reaction to part of it. I am amused by the fact that you seem to consider yourself the only intellectual critic on The New York Times. Has it not ever occurred to you that there are many other critics who are also intellectual, perhaps even as intellectual as you are, and that we have no problem with them at all. I do not deny that you are an intellectual, but the difference between you and the other critics—Kramer, Schonberg, Huxtable, Lehmann-Haupt, Broyard, and this is not meant to be an all-inclusive list—is that they are intellectual writers.

That is, they manage to convey their intellectual perceptions to the reader. Our problem with you is not that you are an intellectual, but simply that you do not write very well. You do not convey your thoughts clearly. You do not give the reader a clear enough idea of just what is in your mind.

I do not dispute for a moment that you are an expert in the cinema or that other students of the cinema find you interesting. But I am afraid that it is simply not enough. In movie criticism, as in other criticism, the job of the expert critic is to arouse interest—negative or positive—and understanding and stimulation in any intelligent reader. At this, I think, and most of my colleagues think, that you have failed. If it gives you comfort, you may think of us as ignorant and hard hat. But if you do, I think you delude yourself.

To put it another way, it seems to me that you are writing for a rather small coterie of people. In a way, you are writing trade reviews. The level of the segment of the trade to which you address yourself may be quite knowledgeable and interested in your work. But it is still trade writing, not criticism addressed as it should be to an audience outside the trade.

The truth of the matter, if you press me, is that I really do not consider your writing to be really intellectual. Unlike intellectual writers, you seem to find it difficult to examine the cinema in any terms except those of the cinema. Cinema terms are valid enough, but only if they are combined with an awareness that the movies are related to many other things including the economic, social and political developments in our society and the intellectual developments, too. I think that a good critic is able to relate the art about which he is writing to the world around him and this I find quite lacking. To put it bluntly, you write small.

Your last paragraph talks about the possibility that we may be “reverting.” What you are saying is that despite the fact that we happily print critics like the ones I have mentioned above and despite the fact that we have encouraged writers on our own staff around the country and abroad to write about a range of cultural topics far be yond anything this paper has covered, the mere fact that we happen not to be satisfied with the work of Roger Greenspun means that we are “reverting.” Really, this is grand chutzpah.

I take little more pleasure in this kind of exchange than you do. We tried to be as open and straight with you as we could. Mr. Gelb discussed with you his reservations about your work several times. You refused to recognize these objections, or perhaps were unable to meet them, and clothed the whole situation in a rather self-serving position that we were mad at Roger Greenspun because he was intellectual or a “serious critic.”

As long as you cling to this illusion and refuse to face up to the reality that what we are unhappy about is not intellectualism but muddy writing wherever it appears, I don’t think that you will be able to help yourself or us.

That was my only substantive communication from Rosenthal, and there seemed no point in answering it. People on The Times who knew him much better than I did said that you got a pretty good sense of the man from the memo. I don’t know who the “colleagues” who agreed with him where; I very strongly suspect that there weren’t many, and there certainly didn’t have to be any. I was told later on good authority that he considered the letters supporting me to be attacks on The Times. I have no idea what he meant by “a small coterie of people” or by the charge that I was writing “trade reviews.” Variety publishes trade reviews, and I don’t think my reviews were much like theirs. As for writing about the cinema only in terms of the cinema, the charge isn’t true. But in any case I doubt that an analogous objection would have been raised to an art critic who examined art only in terms of art. This seems a function of The Times’ ambivalence towards the popular arts, and it may explain why Rosenthal’s list of house intellectuals fails to mention the critics of theater, film, and television.

When Nora Sayre’s appointment was announced, late last July, there was another Variety piece, and there were more letters of protest. Rosenthal was on vacation at the time, and his secretary acknowledged the letters. I don’t know if he ever got around to answering them.

I’ve tried to be dispassionate in this account, though I can’t pretend to disinterested objectivity. I’ve left out some things—personal miseries like the meetings with Gelb mentioned in the memos; the gradual restriction in length even for reviews that I considered important. When told I was to be replaced, I wasn’t taken by surprise. I did then and still do consider the dismissal stupid and regressive, if not on account of my own qualities, then at least for the attitude toward film that to some degree I represented. I suspect that that attitude toward film had something to do with the dismissal, knowing Rosenthal’s personal distaste for some movies I’d praised (Bresson’s Une Femme Douce and Tati’s Traffic are two that I heard about), and his mistrust of a pleasure in genre films in many westerns and almost any vampire movie. Thus a favorable review of Hans Geisendorfer’s ambitious vampire movie Jonathan was cut because, according to my editor, “they don’t want to give space to that kind of film.” Whatever its faults, Jonathan is serious enough, and I am fairly sure the same treatment would have been given on the same grounds had I been reviewing, say, the long-delayed premiere of Dreyer’s Vampyr.

Renata Adler has described the conditions under which reviews are written for The Times, and I shan’t add much. Coverage of the arts is handled by a department known as Cultural News, which includes Movie News, Theater News, Music News, and so on. In a fit of sanity, Miss Adler once tried to scratch away the “Movie News” lettering that confronted her daily on Bosley Crowther’s office door. The lettering is gone (indeed, the office is gone), but the emphasis lingers on. Throughout my stay at The Times there were periodic complaints from the managing editor’s office that Cultural News didn’t provide enough news to leaven its serving of culture. Actually, the call for more news is a none-too-subtle trap. Concerts, movies, books, plays, dances were never news in themselves. A deaccession scandal at the Metropolitan is news. The existence of a Vermeer or a Motherwell is not. You might make the front page, if enough money were involved, by buying or selling or, better yet, stealing a painting—but not for painting a painting. But paintings and movies and plays are surely more important, even to readers of The Times, than, say, stories of mismanagement at MGM; and there exists an antagonism between the way the paper understands events and the very nature of events in the art that has never been properly recognized, let alone resolved.

The cultural news editor has several jobs, most of them unrewarding (the position changed hands six times while I was on the paper), one of which is to read and edit reviews: review assignments having been made by the senior critic in each department. From the culture desk the review goes to a copy desk for styling and further editing. The copy desk must answer to the cultural editor, the metropolitan editor, the managing editor, and a small group of elderly men incongruously known as the bull pen. The bull pen allocates space in the paper, establishes style (for example, that we must write “handicapped” rather than “crippled,” “homosexual” rather than “gay”), and arbitrates taste. Taste may cover several areas, but for me it usually had to do with sex. Taste is an obsessive, but also a slippery matter at The Times, and there was no predicting when “whore house” might be changed to “bordello,” or “hooker” to “woman of the streets.” Many parts of the body are in bad taste, and all sexual positions except one. For its authority The Times follows Webster’s Second (copyright 1934) rather than any more recent dictionary. Some words now common aren’t in Webster’s Second. Everybody knows this and makes allowances for it. But when—a bit of 1934 tastelessness or a description of some unmentionable sexual practice—is to be censored out, the standard explanation is that the language for it isn’t in Webster’s Second.

The net result is a slight but pervasive falsification of attitudes and feelings, on the order of having to write “making love” when you mean “screwing.” Anybody writing for The Times becomes unconscionably good at self-censorship. It seemed to me that the limits became narrower each year I was on the paper. But at some level this happens in any of the media, and if you’re lucky you’ll find an outlet that more or less honors your own set of taboos. (This works both ways. I was always afraid to say “fuck” in the New York Free Press because I was sure they would run a headline reading “GREENSPUN SAYS ’FUCK’!”) The Times’ taboos fall considerably to the prudish side of the New York Post, or even prime-time TV. Combined with the standard newspaper assumption that nobody who reads you knows anything (much less a restriction on The Times than on the Post or prime-time TV), they make a powerful set of inhibitions to critical discovery or perspective, or to the simple consideration of human motives and behavior.

Renata Adler also describes The Times’ notion of its typical reader as a “hypothetical, highly serious person, hanging from a subway strap, who had never read a book or seen a movie, used an obscenity or slept with anyone, but who was desperately anxious that every character, however minor, involved in any way with the making of a film should be identified by some parenthetical reference to his prior work.” Most of that is accurate; some of it seems designed to justify a curious emphasis in several of Ms. Adler’s reviews. As an argument for keeping you from writing intelligent criticism, the typical Times reader can be a potent weapon in the hands of a determined editor, but it seemed to me that most editors were not anxious to use him. Usually he would be a function of the editor’s own limitations. When I was told that a reference to Georges Méliès would “never be understood by the average intelligent reader” unless I explained it (I refused, and with Canby’s backing the refusal stood), I was dealing with an editor’s specific ignorance and not with the average reader’s.

The readers I actually heard from never seemed remotely average. Apart from crank mail, of which there was surprisingly little, and more or less personal interest mail, letters generally had to do with movies rather than with reviews, and they had to do with issues more than with movies. A Sunday article on how Hollywood looks at Jews or whether Anthony Quinn should play black is virtually guaranteed mail. Whether such mail accurately reflects a range of interest, I’m inclined to doubt. Sometimes an odd review would generate heavy and highly suspicious response. When I panned Rivals, a very obscure and ridiculous New York melodrama that ran for a week in 1972 and received, if I remember correctly, one favorable review, all sorts of protest mail came in from psychoanalysts or from people who sounded as if they had spent a lot of time talking with them; one psychoanalyst even submitted his own counter-review. It turned out that the director’s wife was an analyst, and though I can’t prove a connection, I also can’t believe that one doesn’t exist. At least three times as many letters came in for Rivals as for Sounder, which I also panned and which many thoughtful, well-meaning people liked. There is a kind of liberal establishment interest in films like Sounder, or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or even Johnny Got His Gun, that has nothing to do with the lunatic fringe and also has nothing to do with movies, and simply cannot understand how you can put down a film that loves peace or human dignity or the rightful aspirations of well-behaved Negroes in the Thirties.

Letters from people who discovered a movie through a review came sometimes, but also letters like the one from a man who saw Rio Lobo on my recommendation and remembered better acting in his high school play, or from a man who thought that anybody admiring Hawks’s Rio Lobo needed a month in the fresh air and sunshine. Occasionally, there might as well have been no mail at all. Among the articles I was least ashamed of having written for The Times was a Sunday piece on Bresson’s great Four Nights of a Dreamer. The only letter on that piece came from a woman outraged that The Times was running such sexist commentary on such sexist movies. Of course she hadn’t seen the movie. But as anyone practiced in that kind of correspondence can tell you, seeing the movie is never the point.

Simply writing about Bresson at that length and with that degree of concentration seemed a real victory in The Times. If you go back over the daily reviews of Pickpocket, Les Dames Du Bois De Bologne, Au Hasard Balthazar—an easy matter now that The Times has reprinted its film criticism through 1970—you will find, not disrespect, but such outright incomprehension that the reviewer might never have experienced , let alone understood, the film.

Stanley Kauffmann has a good deal to say about the way Broadway theater is covered in The Times, and in one way or another, I suppose that coverage is a continuing scandal. But then, Broadway theater is a continuing scandal, and the problem is that it gets from its reviewers rather better than it deserves. I don’t mean brilliant criticism. I don’t know what brilliant criticism would do in the face of most of the commercial theater I’ve seen. But I do mean a criticism that meets the theater pretty much on its own level, tends to like too much too readily, but at least appreciates the methods and aspirations with which it deals. Some masterpiece may go by unnoticed, but it will probably not go by unpublished or even unperformed in another time and another place where there is a theater group capable of doing it.

With movies, things are different. Of course a film’s mode of existence is different, and the reviewing practice necessarily takes account of this. A Budd Boetticher western unreviewed perhaps because it was a western and had its New York premiere on 42nd Street (I’m guessing at the reasons, but there are 11 Boetticher titles between 1950 and 1960 unlisted in The Times film review index, and these include Comanche Station, Ride Lonesome, Seven Men from Now) remains unreviewed. But more important, movies have generally not been met on their level, except the most obvious, and this is true for the cinema of Budd Boetticher and just as true for a cinema like that of Jean Renoir.

The original Times review of The Rules of the Game, April, 1950 (” . . . one for the buzzards . . . a baffling mixture of stale sophistication, coy symbolism and galloping slapstick that almost defies analysis . . . the master has dealt his admirers a pointless, thudding punch below the belt.”) was corrected 11 years later in a handsome tribute written by Gene Archer. But by that time the film had already received international recognition, and Archer’s review, justified by the release of a reconstructed print, doesn’t quite constitute independent discovery. Other directors might do as well (for example, two days before Archer’s revaluation of The Rules of the Game, Bosley Crowther at some length panned Buñuel’s The Young One, but Renoir typifies the refinement in directors’ studies in which one or two classics—in this case Grand Illusion of course—become the standard by which everything else falls. By the time of the Sixties New York premieres of some Thirties masterpieces the pattern is very well defined. Thus The Crime of Monsieur Lange is a “complete antique,” though valuable to “the student” as offering “some fascinating glints of [Renoir’s] developing thoughts and style . . . Two years later he made Grande Illusion, which is his masterpiece.” Boudu Saved from Drowning, released in 1967, is a “second-rate antique” unworthy of filling a double bill, which it did, with William Jersey’s civil-rights documentary A Time for Burning, which unlike Boudu “merits widespread showing, especially to church groups.” I think it was about this time that Bosley Crowther took the New Yorker Theater to task for showing films like Boudu because they give marginal theatrical exhibition in this city a bad name.

Crowther of course was Crowther, and probably nobody holding that job for 27 years would have been flowing with brilliant new perceptions toward the end. But the very length of Crowther’s tenure indicates some satisfaction with his work, and I rather think that if The Times could somehow have modernized Bosley Crowther, or reincarnated him with the intelligence and taste of a moderately with-it 25-year-old Philistine, that would be their ideal new movie critic.

Just as I finished my last set of interviews before being hired, Arthur Gelb leaned over to me and very confidentially asked, “You don’t—er—have standards, do you?” I was torn between wanting to blurt out “You’re goddamn right I have standards!” and wanting to say something more sophisticated, about how standards in the abstract were a bunch of mischievous nonsense, and, no, I didn’t have standards; I judged everything on its own terms. What I actually said was, “What do you mean?” And it turned out, he meant did I automatically dislike all Hollywood movies. I didn’t, and don’t. But the story does more than just illustrate one small aspect of the communication problem that keeps everyone who writes for The Times’ Metropolitan Desk on his toes. It enforces a distinction between art and “entertainment” that no movie critic with a brain in his head has bothered with for the past 15 years but that still troubles the higher reaches of The Times. A Godard or a Fassbinder can write with real admiration for the cinema of Douglas Sirk. But in The Times’ reviews, Sirk remained unspeakably low trash; and until fairly recently, Godard, and most recently, Fassbinder, have been ridiculously high art. To prefer a Sirk epic to, say, a Jan Troell epic might be understood, if not condoned, at The Times as a preference for Fifties schlock over Seventies solemnity. But I doubt that it would be understood as a reasonable choice between two visions in a comprehensive form with its own language and its own ways of demonstrating excellence. That is, of course, movies as movies. But at this stage of the game, movies as anything else looks like simple impertinence.

Anybody who has followed The Times over the past few years has noticed changes in the style of the paper. Whatever the quality of those changes elsewhere in The Times, in Cultural News they have tended to fragment and to trivialize coverage. The daily Going Out Guide may have its uses , but it is no substitute for a drama or a movie review. Nevertheless it takes up space that might go to such reviews—as do the Briefs on the Arts, the Pop Life column, and so on. You could take these columns, put them together with some investigative reporting on the arts and money (grants, sales, thefts), add several feature interviews and a really blockbuster trend piece every few months—and come up with a Cultural News section that would never have to make vital contact with an individual work of art. I don’t quite see this happening. For one thing, the economics of entertainment advertising—which pays for a good hunk of the paper—forbid it. But I do sense the possibility of fairly massive streamlining, with fewer and shorter reviews (much music reviewing has already gone), usually following a newsman’s sense of what is important, what costs the most, what is the most sensational, what a pre-sold audience is most going to want to see. For film, so much of which is a privileged meeting place between the gaudily disreputable and the utterly obscure, such a move invites disaster. It is precisely in what does not seem newsworthy—or distinguished—that everything of interest happens. A good movie critic knows this, having developed a certain instinct for working in the dark. But if he feels he has to write into his review a justification for why it should take up space that might otherwise go to reporting prices at Parke-Bernet, then he is on the way to becoming a bad movie critic. It may seem a small role for a great newspaper, but in the arts the best The Times can do is provide a favorable environment for its critics. If it fails to do this, then to the extent of that small role, it is in trouble.

*Copyright 1973 by Variety, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.