Fireworks


Weighing in on two hot-button moviemad matters, in this the spring of our discontent: first, Charlton Heston was, in fact, a fairly terrible actor, "axiomatic" or not. Had he manifested in the age of Paul Muni and Norma Shearer he might've seemed remarkable, but in the naturalistic day of Brando, Newman, Hackman and Nicholson, Heston was a leaden, almost comical log of wood. (Imagine him attempting comedy.) If he's still an "axiom," cinema is in trouble. Of course, I have qualifications, having loved Heston's profile-to-the-sky essence when I was a kid. Primarily, Heston hit home runs, like many monolithic stars, when he was playing pricks and assholes — The Big Country, The Naked Jungle, Major Dundee, (best of all) Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, etc. Planet of the Apes, in fact, remains a freaky and wonderful speculative satire to a large extent because of his egomaniacal, fuck-em-all personality. But the rest, in a career that stretched over a half-century, is tough to take. Touch of Evil is a masterpiece in spite of him. The historical epics are intolerable, excepting El Cid thanks to Anthony Mann's fluency with landscape.

Second, a cynical voice from the film-reviewing wilderness in regards to the recent Night of the Knives for American film critics, a bloodletting that seemed to begin with me when I was dumped, from the PTSNBN, in '06 (or maybe it just looks that way from here)... Essentially, I cannot be terribly surprised; the existence of full-time staff film reviewers is a nutty aberration in the history of periodical publishing, just as are (or were) book reviewers and theater reviewers, from a business point of view. I'd love to see every magazine employ an army of full-time culture reviewers, and pay them millions, but it doesn't make very much sense, for the simple reason that it's not truly a full-time job.  If you're David Ansen, say, you might see three or four movies a week, and be asked to generate maybe a 1000 or 1500 words of unchallenging copy reviewing them, and the time thus taken shouldn't take you more than ten, eleven hours, max. That's a part-time job. I treated it, and continue to treat it, as just one part of my work-life and income, because I've had to. But when I was handed a staff position, I felt as if I was running a scam. All of the hubbub surrounding the firings and buyouts seems, from anywhere out there in the real world, like a lot of whining, about how certain writers won't be paid a full-on living wage for watching a movie a day and then writing for a few hours about them, every week. The cops, bartenders, union agents, managers, editors and public school teachers I know would look on that job as a vacation.

Of course, those jobs existed to begin with because publishers and editors thought writers were valuable, and paid them to sit on their asses (like they still do at The New Yorker) because they wanted those writers' availability and flow of copy. But today that's far less important. The pancaking financial burden, and quarterly losses, of newspaper and magazine publishing is certainly one aspect of it. So is the undeniable sense that critics in general, being the last independent defense standing against a full-court press of consumerist ideology, may be doomed because of their adversarial position toward the corporate sell-machines that pay them.

But there's also this: the writing isn't valued anymore, and not only because there's a certain amount (not much) of decent writing to be had on the net, for free. Interesting expository writing, the kind that only a few writers can write, the kind that takes a retained high school education to read and understand, is just not considered of value in our culture. By evolution or design (I'd vote for the latter), we're much stupider now than we were 40 or 80 years ago, a simple fact that can be proven to any fool by a comparison between 1968 and today, by way of the two eras' political speech rhetoric, song lyrics, movie content, fiction bestsellers, primetime TV programming, magazine syntax, school curricula, so on and so on. If we as a culture couldn't find the interest and patience for, say, A.J. Leibling or H.L. Mencken or George Santayana or Rebecca West or Bertrand Russell or George Orwell — and, if they were writing today, no interest or patience would be expended upon them at all — then paying talented writers a staff wage nowadays makes no practical sense. Writers who can hit that middle ground, the one without demanding subclauses or allusions, etc., are a dime a dozen, and do not need to be kept on retainer. If writing in America is a matter for the common denominatorship, then we're all freelancers, and we'd better face up to it.



 

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  • 4/9/2008 7:13 PM Chris wrote:
    I wanted to say something smart, but then I realized that the only thing your column elicited in me was this bon mot, in honor of Fred Ward: Fuckin' A, Bubba. Thanks for putting Heston's place in it's place, especially after all the fawning in the wake of his death. Hombre was a straight-up jamon, senor. And while your take on the Night of the Long Knives was infinitely more eloquent than anything I could come up with, I pretty much expressed the same sentiment in the comment section of Greencine when it was reported that Nathan Lee lost his job. My comment, which was censored by the site's moderator, boiled down to this: Get another job. I just can't find a reserve of empathy inside of my cold heart for guys like Nathan Lee. I mean, I want to, but I can't, not when I have to work six days a week at a job I hate, a job I took because my degree in writing is worthless, and this job was the only one that afforded me the opportunity to pay my rent and car insurance and food. So thanks for your straight shooting. Much appreciated.
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    1. 4/9/2008 8:14 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:

      I think John Leonard, bless him, nailed it with an off-line in the Harper's review of a bio of Alfred Kazin, who apparently scrounged to pay his rent his whole life; that nobody, I'm paraphrasing, ever promised a rose garden to "those of us who'd rather read Proust than get a real job."
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  • 4/10/2008 12:18 AM John M wrote:
    From a viewer's (and filmmaker's) perspective, though, a future with no mainstream professional critics at all--with the Village Voice coming under "mainstream," pretty much anything on paper coming under "mainstream"--scares the shit out of me. A lot gets written about the kids today, with their distractions and their reliance on Rotten Tomatoes-sanctioned word-of-mouth (on a good day) or just ads or sheer boredom (on a bad day).

    But I'm not a kid. I'm thirty. I love films. I can't see every film that comes out. I want to hear from a voice I trust, every week--and preferably someone who answers to some external standard. (Some of these web writers just don't know when to stop...writing...and without the pay, why would they see everything that's out?)

    Being a staff film critic sure looks preferable to bussing tables, no argument here. But as a viewer with limited time and an even more limited budget, I gotta say, I'm not quite sure what I'll do when they're gone.
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    1. 4/10/2008 8:34 AM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      Well, sure -- my argument doesn't take the reader/viewer into consideration at all, but they are the ones that get fucked in the end. Except if there were a lot of you, and me, etc., then we'd represent a market force substantial enough to make newspapers and magazines use good staff reviewers, and plenty of them. But we are, sad to say, a vocal minority. We're looking at the barrel end of the syndrome endured by book review lovers a few decades back, as their venues dwindled and space devoted to books in tabloids all but vanished. If there were enough book-lovers that cared, it wouldn't've gone down that way.
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  • 4/10/2008 12:39 PM Bob Westal wrote:
    Boy, while agreeing in general we disagree on almost every specific.

    I've never been Heston's biggest fan and spent some time mildly differentiating my feelings from the Heston memorials of some of the better bloggers out there (the Siren, Dennis Cozzalio) on that score. But I wouldn't call him "fairly terrible," though you may be right that he would have fit in better had he been born about thirty years prior. But he could be funny, witness his Cardinal Richelieu in Lester's Musketeers. I think my overall conclusion is that he just wasn't my particular favorite flavor of ham.

    And I've also got to disagree with in the strongest terms you when you lapse into the hoary line about how we're all getting stupider. I'm just old enough to remember 1968 -- I was six, but I was a weird kid who watched a lot of grown-ups talking on TV -- and I'm here to tell you, as the next decade wore on, that they all thought that everyone was much, much smarter forty years prior, what with all the hippies and their stupid illiterate rock and roll, which was in no way to be compared with the grace of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart (i.e, the pop music of their youth).

    I'm now old enough to see people idealizing the time of my youth in the seventies and eighties, and I think it's bunk. On the one hand, the truth of the matter is that most people have always been idiots but we tend to forget that. However, I think see some evidence that we've grown culturally smarter since then in some ways -- though obviously not in others.

    I could make a long list, but let's look at television. Sure, we've got reality TV now -- but we did then, too. But at the high end, I can't imagine a show with the complexity, depth, and stylistic boldness of the "The Sopranos" or "Mad Men," just for two examples, playing in 1968. As far as the vast wasteland is concerned, I promise that in 30 years this will seem to be a golden age. In general, we tend to forget the bad stuff and lionize the good stuff.

    I'll take you one step further and say that I think most of the writers you cite would do fine today -- though they might have a harder time making a living without resorting to academe. The fact that you've got readers shows there's plenty of room for Mencken-like grouchiness and unapologetic elitism, as well as a precise, complex writing style.

    It's not like I think nothing is ever lost. Certainly mainstream American films have seen a definite decline and have farmed out much of the middlebrow to indie cinema. But that's just the warp and woof of history, which we're all kind of trapped in, though I think I'm happier about it than you might be.

    And, let's see. David Ansen spends eight hours watching movies, then churns out 4000-6000 words of "unchallenging copy" in the three hours "max" remaining. That's up to 2000 words of finished writing per hour. It's taken me half an hour to write this -- just under 3000 characters.


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    1. 4/10/2008 9:21 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:

      You're right, of course, in a general way -- that is, it is an immediate and universal impulse to idealize own's youthful past and damn the present, and we could both cough up examples of smart/stupid from both eras to support our arguments.  But I'd disagree on several counts: Mencken et al. might get published, but would have 1/100th the readership they used to, even if they blogged, which they would have to. (I scarcely have enough readers, I think, to make me an enviable paradigm.) "The Sopranos" is an exception, seen by very few; instead, look at "CSI." It's an interesting argument to have, and I plan on doing a full-on entry soon comparing the eras side by side.
      But the point will be not merely that "we" are "stupider," which of course was my phrase, but that the culture around us, which we are gleefully consuming as instructed, is many times stupider, and deliberately so. A quick example before I get scientific: in the '60s leotard-wearing superheroes were fodder for grade-school boys, absolutely period. Today, they are consumed by all age groups, in scores of mediums, and -- and here's the point that makes me queasy -- this mass, universal acceptance in the adult world is not seen as a childish indulgence or a shame-faced regression but as the proper cultural attitude, occupying an intellectual level above which it is not necessary to go. A second example: any Bush speech, compared to any Johnson or Nixon speech; the differential between them is huge, but the fact to be fearful of is how, today, Bush's hick-playground diction and phrasing is almost universally accepted as suitable, adequate and even a point of pride.

       

       


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  • 4/11/2008 7:58 AM RvB wrote:
    Thank you for your editorial support of America's long-suffering pink-slip manufacturers. Of course, it's not just the critics who are getting laid off by the dozens, it's the news staffs too. And those layoffs might have something to do with the "design" side of the equation you mentioned, regarding why Americans are so ill-informed today.
    3 or 4 film screenings a week? Come on, that wasn't your schedule when you were being paid to be a film critic, was it? Surely Ansen must have been seeing more than that. If he wasn't, I'll grant you that a layoff was in order, but I sure doubt that story. When you work as a film critic in a good sized, cinephile city (NY, LA, or SF, for instance) you are working all the time. The day starts early and goes late. The other day I could have gone to six screenings, beginning at 11 AM and ending at midnight, and the films weren't commercial junk either. (OK, one of them was The Ruins...) I would have submitted myself to that marathon if I didn't have deadlines; I only made it through four. It's not work in the bartender, cop, etc sense, but it is time consuming. If you don't want to write dreck, it'll take you a little longer...unless your point is that all commercially produced criticism is dreck.
    What about the time it takes to read the books the films are based on? Or the time it takes to do the research, to get some background on the non-fiction based films that have been pouring out ever since audiences began to accept small-camera documentaries? Don't forget film festivals and film archives, both which go begging for publicity. And then again blogging is a nice drain on the time, too.
    The writers out there aren't asking for a rose garden, just a living wage. Maybe some of the critics you knew in NYC were living in clouds of their own divine afflatus, removed from street level suffering. The ones I know work hard and usually hold down a part-time job because they aren't paid enough.
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    1. 4/11/2008 9:45 AM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      I don't who/what you write for, or why you're going to those screenings, but a glance at the film coverage in Newsweek or Time will make clear that Ansen et al. could only write about a handful of movies a week, and usually the big Hollywood releases, and only had to write 750 words or so on each. Gone are the days when Pauline Kael, who reviewed at most three films a week, could eat up 3000 or more words in her review. He could, like you, go to many free screenings, but that wouldn't be part of his job, strictly speaking. Besides, writers for the big mags and papers get screeners at home, too, but generally they only see what they need to write about, and no earning critic reviews more than four films a week, and no publication would give him or her more than 750 words each to write about them. Part-time job. Which is not to say I think that's the way it should be; I think every pub, even Popular Mechanics and Cigar Aficionado, should have staff reviewers, cranking out copy and entering into the discussion. 
      And I am only talking about culture reviewers; regular reporters, who must do deep legwork and file multiple stories in a given week, have real fulltime jobs. But, clarifying further, I'd love it if both hard news and thoughtful culture coverage were highly paid, highly respected, bountiful quantities. We cannot, really, have enough of either. But today we have a serious deficit of both, and why we do is quite apparently the end-result of the last 25 years' of rampaging corporate consolidation, which in turn has driven the amount of money spendable on intellectual content down, as it strives to create a culture around us in which we are happy with less on all fronts. And they've succeeded.
      I'm still being paid to be a film critic, but at a variety of places and not just one. But when I was at my busiest, writing for a weekly the film section of which outweighed the coverage in any other and covered everything in New York, not just two or three blockbusters like the glossies, I still got to write about only a handful of movies a week; more if I was covering a retro and/or DVD releases. Sometimes I'd watch eight or nine movies a week, and wrote 3000-4000 words of copy, which was an opportunity and space few reviewers get. And it was still a part-time job: I taught, wrote for other magazines, wrote books.
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  • 4/11/2008 12:12 PM Richard von Busack wrote:
    "I don't who/what you write for, or why you're going to those screenings..."
    Hi, I'm Richard von Busack. I write for Metro Newspapers, a chain of weekly papers in San Jose, California, with outposts in Santa Cruz and Sonoma County. That includes the San Francisco market. We have an internet presence so there's no telling what I might be assigned to do, and no restrictions on length. I also write for Cinematical.com and do a TV show out of Santa Cruz. There are film festivals almost every week, and several good revival houses in this territory. One, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto is currently running a Bette Davis festival that's playing every one of her films pre-Jezebel. Check out that schedule (stanfordtheatre.org) and drool. It is a blessing to have all those films out there, but keeping up with it is a full-time job.
    As for "Why I am going to all those screenings..." even if you discount stuff that's guaranteed to be commercial space-filler (they don't even screen a lot of that dumbass horror and comedy stuff, as you know) there's no good way to judge the quality of a film without seeing it. That's why you go.
    While some previews help you recognize commercial tripe, and some essentially play the movie for you scene by scene, there's other previews that take a hard-to-fit film and try to make it look like something it's not, in order to sell it.
    And another thing: if Ansen was attending films he wasn't chosing to write about, he'd be working and not wasting his time. How do you evaluate a film without seeing what else is out there? I have no idea what Ansen's work habits were like, but I'd suggest that he saw films before he decided which ones he'd choose to give some space. But this may be ignorance on my part. His editor might have just told him what was on the menu that week.
    Screeners are a serious time-saver, even though they diminish the image of a film horribly. But working at home is still work. I realize you're taking a stance, that you're trying to get past some of the tears shed in print over the layoffs of critics who won't be missed much.
    I guess if I'm a little sore about your characterization of film criticism as part time work...as work that ought to be part time, period...it's because I got into this line because of Kael and Edmund Wilson. I thought the critical essay had some merit as literature and could be as instructive as teaching. Having read you for a while, I'm certain that's why you got into this line also. It's really not like evaluating cigars, is it?
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    1. 4/11/2008 3:58 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      Greetings, Richard. First, my gibe about Cigar Aficionado having film reviews is a joke, and was not meant to suggest that reviewing movies and cigars are of similar importance, though it wouldn't be hard to find some who think so...
      But, I guess all you're saying is that being a published film critic can be a full-time job if you make it one. If you're earning a full-time salary from it, mazel tov. But most critics get assigned movies, or get to choose, prior to screenings, because editors need to assign what isn't covered to someone else. I, for one, saw as much as I could, but didn't see everything I wasn't writing about, until it was the end of the year, and then I'd round-up screeners to repair my gaps. I wouldn't consider that work, though. I rarely missed anything worthwhile; contrary to your principled stance, I think you can, 4 times out of 5, suss out if a movie is worth seeing before you see it, if only from the credits and premise. There are exceptions: I remember telling my editor to see "Pootie Tang," which hadn't screened for critics and which he'd planned to just not review. But it became one of his favorite films of that year. (Not quite one of mine, but I'm glad I was made to see it, on assignment for another venue.) Now, I see far less, but mostly it's far less crap. The important films find their way to me.
      Anyway, if you're in a position to write about whatever you want, and feel conscience-bound to see four movies a day to that end, you go, buddy. But how do you choose what to write about? What about the presumable scores of films you don't have time/space to cover? Does anyone pick up the slack, and if so, how do they find out what they're covering before it's too late?








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      1. 4/12/2008 7:41 AM RvB wrote:
        I wouldn't call them "scores" but some do slip through the net. We've got free-lancers who takes up the excess and the stuff I rebel against...but if there's something coming up that looks like absolute dog-meat, I feel honor bound to go...just on the small chance that it isn't dogmeat, and also to spare the other writers.
        Lately, there are an increasing number of night screenings sponsored by radio stations, causing schedule conflicts. The number of daytime press screenings is declining--I can remember long ago when it was a matter of sarcastic comment when a film didn't screen for the press. You could almost count on such a film being directed by that busy Mr. Smithee. Come to think of it, I even remember them press screening a Smithee film (Morgan Stewart's Coming Home) once.
        I've got a pretty unusual job situation here, so the thrust of what you're saying is true. I guess I thought someone of the Newsweek level would be watching films from morning till night, but of course it's not like that. As Jonathan Rosenbaum was suggesting, the higher you rise, the less room you get to write.
        The way it works for me is that I consult with my editor and propose a lead review, based on our deadlines and what they've let us see this week. This week wasn't ideal. I found out that the new Rivette was opening at the last minute (wish I'd been at that press screening, but it was one I missed because of schedule conflicts) so I needed to go with the one I could see the night before deadline, Street Kings. So Street Kings got the longer review and Duchess of Langelais got the shorter one. That's not at all the way it should work in an alternative paper. Plus I'd meant to read the Balzac before I saw it, but that got away as well.
        Having trusted friends who tip you off to films is invaluable, but then you have situations such as the great word of mouth Juno got. Pootie Tang is the reverse situation. If I'd waited until I got the word on something like Pootie Tang it might be out of the theaters by the time I heard. (I guess that's what the DVD reviews are for.) I'd be depressed to let that one slip through. Fortunately, not every day is one long endless press screening. I need my daylight like anyone else.
        Last night, my wife and I went out and caught The Girl Can't Help It at PFA in Berkeley. On the one hand, it'd be ridiculous to describe watching a Frank Tashlin movie as "work." On the other hand, will I be able to use that experience when writing for the newspaper? Absolutely. Do you think there's something to that saying about how a writer is working even if he seems to be sitting and looking out the window?
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        1. 4/12/2008 10:35 AM Michael Atkinson wrote:
          Fair enough. To your last question, I'd say that looking out the window is integral to any writer's process, but to call it work and demand pay for the time is disingenuous. As for your Tashlin screening, you may find reason to "use it," but could you expect your paper's owners to care? Your readers? In America, the quickest way to deutilize yourself as a film journalist is display fluency with and a prioritative passion for "classic" or even imported cinema.  If you have a full-time gig in the paying sense, count your blessings and, I'll say gently, prepare for a coming day when you'll be called upon to earn some other way.
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          1. 4/14/2008 11:49 AM RvB wrote:
            "In America, the quickest way to deutilize yourself as a film journalist is display fluency with and a prioritative passion for "classic" or even imported cinema."
            Can't argue with that, even unto the quotations around the "classic" for studio era Hollywood.
            I do count those blessings, and I won't drop dead of shock if those blessings get taken away. I'm not blind to what's going on in the world of print journalism, but so far I've had success writing about old and imported movies.
            Can I expect the readers to care? That's a tricky question. I never know what to expect from the readers. They surprise me all the time. You try tipping them off to the treasures out there, and damned if they don't go for it sometimes. For instance, the local art theater in San Jose held over Four Months, Three Weeks... and even had to switch it to a larger auditorium. I'm not at all saying I did it with my review. I know the NY Times has more sway, and Tony Scott said it was the best movie of the year. Maybe it was word of mouth? The cinema scene out there is incomparably bleak, but I'm not giving up on the art or the audiences.
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  • 4/13/2008 12:31 PM Bob wrote:
    Michael -- Well, you're not going to get ANY defenses of anything W-related from me, but I'm sure Warren Harding's speeches weren't great. And I'm going to have to leave TV alone this time, because I've got another bone to pick.

    Wouldnja know I happen to be a (somewhat in remission) comic book fan? I'm glad you make an apparent distinction between superhero/long underwear comics and other comics. When I discuss the subject I alway try to remind folks that comics are a medium, and superheroes are a genre. For more, I'll suggest Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics," maybe the best single non-fiction piece I've ever read on a given medium -- and Scott actually did it as a comic book.

    But in regards to superhero and similar type comics, if you had said, "fifties" you might have been closer to correct about the readership of superhero comics (not so much EC horror comics, which today's biggest, superhero-hating comics snobs -- and, yes, there are such creatures -- laud), but the average age of readers has been trending upwards dramatically since Marvel comics famously started becoming fairly popular on college campuses during the mid-to-late sixties. Nothing like today, but also far from "fodder for grade-school boys, absolutely period." Absolutely not true, period.

    In any case, I'm over forty and feel absolutely no shame about reading superhero comics from time to time, though much less over the last several years (time and expense being major factors as well as maybe a little over-familiarity). Lots of people, some of them truly brilliant, are far more regular consumers. If you check out Brian Doan's terrific film/culture blog, Bubblegum Aesthetics, you'll may be horrified, delighted, or both, I'm not sure. There's no doubt that Brian and I both geeks of a certain school of thought, but that's another story. The practice of rescuing genres traditionally considered lowbrow or worse basically started when the French rescued recognized film noir classics as legitimate art and has continued ever since.

    I will say that it's possible you're estimation of superhero comics is derived from movies made of them, which I understand, since most of the superhero movies are pretty awful. I think a lot of critics assume that the writing quality is being raised even in the worst film versions. This assumption is wrong -- film writers and directions are more often guilty of lowering the level of complexity.

    When probably the ultimate thinking man's superhero comic came out, 1986's "Watchmen," and there was talk of a movie version my first reaction was, "this is way too intelligent for a mainstream movie." (Considering that Zack "300" Snyder is finally doing the movie alarms me a bit now.) In any case, every time I read a film critic say a movie has "comic book dialog," I know in a parallel universe some clueless critic is trashing a comic book for "movie dialog."
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