This is the Introduction to the fifth section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.
From a journalistic standpoint, what movies are about is always important, but the roles that should be played by content in criticism are not always easy to determine. Ever since I started writing regularly for the Chicago Reader in 1987, my principal professional safety net — what helps to guarantee that I’ll remain interested in my work on a weekly basis, even if the movies of a given week are not interesting — is my option of writing about the subject matter of certain films. This almost invariably involves a certain amount of short-term research, because even if I already know the subject fairly well, a refresher course in certain specifics is generally necessary. (A good example of this would be the reading and listening I had to do in order to nail down many of my facts and examples for “Bird Watching,” in spite — or should I say because? — of my familiarity with bebop and the life of Charlie Parker, which dates back to my teens.)
My greater interest in “content” is a relatively recent development in my criticism, and it parallels the evolution of a critic and theorist who remains one of my biggest influences, Noël Burch (whose work with Thom Andersen on Hollywood films of the blacklist era directly inspired “Guilty by Omission.”) An American expatriate filmmaker and writer, Burch started out in his first book, Praxis du cinéma (1969) — which I originally read in French, before it was translated as Theory of Film Practice (1973) — as a hardcore formalist. After he subsequently became politicized, and duly denounced his earlier work, his research became more and more concerned with questions of content, although in some cases this has also meant a reformulation rather than a mere abnegation of some of his earlier formal insights, Burch’s work can be criticized both for its lack of historical rigor as well as the inaccuracy of some of his examples, but its imagination and originality have made it for me infinitely more valuable than the relatively accurate but generally tedious theoretical work of his principal American critics; read as a sort of metacritical science fiction, his work continues to be alive with possibilities.
The avoidance of politics in mainstream criticism is broached directly in “Guilty by Omission,” and it is also relevant to the various depoliticizing processes at work in the reception of DEEP COVER. The invisible, unstated biases of critics in forming opinions and setting priorities is always a ripe subject for investigation. Consider how many of the hatchet jobs performed on ISHTAR acknowledged, even in passing, the perhaps justifiable hostility felt by many journalists toward the treatment they had previously received from Warren Beatty, the producer and costar. To cite only one instance of what I mean (the many grievances of journalists against Beatty prior to ISHTAR ‘s release are well documented elsewhere), when I recall a Beatty tribute I attended at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals well before the release of ISHTAR in which Beatty repeatedly ridiculed and undercut Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, the two hosts, I can easily understand how ISHTAR eventually offered them an opportunity to exact some revenge — even if the writer-director of the picture unfortunately happened to be someone else.
As an even more covert example that exists outside of film, I can recall a novelist friend writing a rude and scathing letter to the Village Voice which was printed. To all appearances, it was a direct, unmediated response to a piece in the magazine, but in fact she admitted to me later that it was mainly motivated by the cruel dismissal of her first novel by someone else in the same magazine. I recall thinking at the time that the pan of her novel might very well have had another agenda as well — such as the reviewer’s pique that his or her own first novel hadn’t been reviewed in the Voice.
No doubt the most serious single bias found in criticism today is the eagerness of the press to pander to the U.S. film industry, which means in most cases that even major foreign films will go unnoticed unless a “major” distributor is involved. Writing in the Reader in the late 1980s about Souleymane Cissé’s breathtakingly beautiful YEELEN (BRIGHTNESS ), the greatest African film I’ve seen (and which has been largely ignored by critics in this country), I ruefully speculated that if Cissé had had the power and the bad taste to cast Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks in blackface as the lead instead of the wonderful Issiaka Kane, he’d have botched his masterpiece beyond belief, but he nevertheless would have gotten some attention from the television reviewers, Time, Newsweek, and The New Yorker: “The mainstream consensus appears to be that any African movie, no matter how great, hasn’t a prayer of being treated as seriously as any Cruise or Hanks movie, no matter how atrocious.”
Apart from “Guilty by Omission” — which grew in part out of a Reader column on the rather mediocre Hollywood feature GUILTY BY SUSPICION — all the pieces in this section were written for the Chicago Reader, which leads me to a brief consideration of how I wound up in this reviewing job, the longest one by far (as well as the most satisfying) that I’ve held to date.
When I lost my position at Soho News in November 1981, I was literally at loose ends. The only solid writing project of any size I had at that point was Midnight Movies, a book I was finishing with Jim Hoberman, a second-string critic at that point for the Village Voice; we’d signed our contract with Harper & Row the previous January and had a final deadline in late January 1982. (The fact that Harper & Row had also published Moving Places was entirely coincidental. Craig Nelson, an editor there who wanted to commission a book on midnight movies, wrote to several critics — including Raymond Durgnat, who recommended me, and P. Adams Sitney, who recommended Jim. Jim and I were only acquaintances at the time, but we discovered by chance that we both had been summoned to Craig’s office about the same project. I had the first appointment, and when I told Craig that I knew he’d be seeing Jim as well, Craig spontaneously suggested a collaboration, which I then proposed to Jim.)
Over the next year, Midnight Movies was supplemented by two stints of replacement teaching at the School of Visual Arts, a contract with Arden Press (signed in late June) to write Film: The Front Line 1983 by the following spring, curating a Straub/Huillet season and editing an accompanying monograph for Fabiano Canosa at the Public Theater in November, and writing for magazines ranging from AFI Education Newsletter and Artforum to my usual staples, Sight and Sound and Film Comment, as well as American Film (although Hoberman replaced me there that year as contributing editor, just as he later replaced me as adjunct “visiting professor” at NYU — a situation that put some strain on our relationship).
Emotionally speaking, the biggest crisis I had to face that year was not my relative poverty but the unexpected suicide of my older brother David, after a painful divorce and an unsuccessful relationship, in August. Although we’d seldom been very close, and in fact were bitter sibling rivals as children, we’d achieved a certain rapport about half a year earlier, when David had visited me in Hoboken, and the psychosexual implications of his suicide undoubtedly had a major effect in finally putting an end to my own long-term relationship, which had already been coming apart at the seams.
When I luckily got hired to teach for spring quarter in 1983 at Berkeley, I welcomed the chance to escape the east coast with open arms. By early summer, I had moved all my things out of Hoboken into a Manhattan sublet, only to discover as soon as I arrived that I had been hired as an adjunct for another quarter in the fall at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Six years earlier, I had moved all the way from London to San Diego on the strength of a two-quarter job that I’d hoped would become extended. The gamble hadn’t paid off, but this time, for want of any better prospects, I was moving all my things to Santa Barbara for a similar gamble based on a single-quarter job.*
*My father died of cancer of the prostate only weeks after I arrived, and barely a year after David’s suicide; I have few doubts that this suicide hastened his own death.
This time the gamble paid off, but not right away; for the first year, every request made to a certain dean by the film program chairman that I be rehired for each new quarter was summarily turned down, and it was only after I went to see the dean myself that I got the job. Then, after the first year, I started receiving year-long contracts — the closest thing to job security I ever had in all my years of teaching, and the first time I was able to get health insurance since leaving England. At the same time, I eventually discovered that this security, although better than anything I’d found on the east coast, was wholly finite: the noble efforts of Alexander Sesonske, who briefly served as film chair, to get me and my colleagues onto tenure lines, ended in defeat, and it eventually became clear that no matter how much I published, or, indeed, how much I knew about film, I would never get a permanent teaching job anywhere.
The first time I heard from Bob Roth, the publisher of the Chicago Reader, was at some point in 1986, around the time that Dave Kehr was leaving that paper for the Chicago Tribune — and, unfortunately, shortly after I had signed a contract for an additional year of teaching at UCSB. Dave, whom I’d met and seen every year since 1981 at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, and who had given me a complimentary subscription to the Chicago Reader a couple of years before, had recommended me as a possible replacement, and as potentially appealing as the offer was, the guarantee of a year’s employment at UCSB — which Roth couldn’t offer as categorically — was difficult to pass up. But I told Bob that if he was still looking for someone in 1987, he should try me again.
This is what Bob wound up doing, and after I learned from the current film chair that the odds of my getting rehired indefinitely at UCSB were very poor, I had no hesitation about showing my interest in the Reader. This time, however, Roth and the Reader editors had to be convinced first that I was right for the job, and after sending them several sample pieces, I was commissioned to write three separate sample columns for them before they definitively decided to take me. (Only the first of these was printed — a lengthy and mainly negative review of RADIO DAYS, portions of which were later recycled into “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen.”) Then, after concluding my academic career on a note of relative glory — as director of UCSB’s summer school in film studies, for which I was able to hire, among outsiders, David Ehrenstein, Thomas Elsaessar, Paul Jarrico, and, as artist in residence, Samuel Fuller — I moved to Chicago in August and started work the following month.
Perhaps the most unusual facet of my job is that, thanks to Dave Kehr and the expectations he was able to establish over a decade at the Reader, my knowledge of film actually played some role in my being hired. Strange as it seems, this has rarely functioned as a criterion for the hiring of movie reviewers on American or British papers and nonspecialized magazines, and, I daresay, the degree to which it plays a part in granting tenure to many film professors is debatable as well. “The media no longer ask those who know something (or love something or, worst of all, know why they love something) to share that knowledge with the public,” wrote the late Serge Daney, in a review of THE LOVER shortly before his death in 1992 — a friend and contemporary who may have been the best French film critic since André Bazin.* “Instead they ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in so doing, to legitimize it. To ‘speak for others’ always comes down to claiming droit de seigneur over their ignorance.”
*We met through Jackie Raynal, a mutual friend, and it was Serge who asked me to become Cahiers du Cinéma ‘s New York correspondent during his last years there as editor (1979–1981). Not long afterward, he began to speak to me about his plan for a more ideal film magazine, Trafic, that he finally launched before his death from AIDS in 1992. It’s my own favorite today, and I’m proud to be a frequent contributor.
Moreover, it would be equally naive to assume that these know-nothing critics would necessarily have to educate themselves once they started on the job. During my sojourn in London in the mid-1970s, I often heard the story of novelist Penelope Mortimer, reviewing Hitchcock’s TOPAZ for the Observer in 1969, remarking that Hitchcock was a “comparative newcomer” who had been directing for only eighteen years. I suspect that any knowledgeable American film critic who has been around a few years could probably cite equivalent howlers from his or her colleagues. Ironically, however, the reasons why most journalistic critics and most academic critics don’t have to be knowledgeable about film are very nearly antithetical. In the case of journalists, the lack of a comprehensive film background suggests to many publishers and editors that these critics won’t be threatening or intimidating to the general reader. In the case of academic critics, being threatening or intimidating is more likely to be seen by some administrators and professors as a plus, but an arsenal of theoretical terms often serves better in creating this impression than familiarity with film. I realize, of course, that there are many significant exceptions to this rule. But the number of tenured film professors in the United States who know very little about film — and the corresponding number of film professors who know a lot and fail to get tenure — are still large enough to suggest that institutional savvy often counts for more in this world than concrete information about the medium.
What this often boils down to in both realms is a desire for expediency that promotes conformity. Educators tend to look for what’s most teachable and journalists tend to look for what’s most saleable (i.e., available on the marketplace), and this lands both kinds of critic in a climate that prefers the tried-and-true and the status quo to the untested and the potentially problematical. What seems especially unfortunate about this state of affairs is that the potential openness of both students and general audiences to new challenges is often factored out of basic policy decisions at the very outset. Once the passive attitude of most spectators toward what is available to them for viewing becomes essentially shared — and therefore ratified — by teachers and critics, the role of criticism itself becomes degraded, turning the critical process into yet another unacknowledged means for greasing the wheels of commerce.
In the previous section, I argued for the advantages of writing for a small but intensely engaged audience over writing for a much larger but generally more indifferent public. In the case of my writing for the Reader, it might be said that I’ve finally reached a position that stands roughly in between these two possibilities. On the basis of a detailed survey about its readership carried out a few years ago, the Reader — a free alternative weekly paid for by advertising, and one of the oldest and most successful of its kind in the United States — has a circulation of 137,000 and an estimated readership of about 412,000. Virtually all of this circulation is restricted to Chicago and environs. In the remainder of the country, apart from some comps to friends and colleagues and a small number of paid subscriptions, my Reader work gets no exposure at all, so my audience is essentially a third of a million Chicagoans.
The paper, which comes in several sections, is dated Friday and its weekly listings cover Friday through Thursday; the heaps of copies that appear in selected stores and other public buildings on Thursday or Friday are usually gone by the end of the weekend. My contributions to each issue come in two parts — a “column” or longer review in the first section, and detailed listings with capsule reviews or descriptions of theatrical and nontheatrical movie venues in Chicago and its nearest suburbs in the second section. My listings include my own capsule reviews and those of my predecessors (including Dave Kehr) that I choose to retain rather than redo; they appear in all fifty-one issues of the Reader that are published annually, and I average about forty-one or forty-two columns (including annual features on the Chicago Film Festival and my ten best list) a year.
On the basis of an extensive Reader survey of over 1,200 of its readers, carried out in early 1993, the movie listings and capsule reviews are the most widely read or “looked at” feature in the paper, cited by 58.3 percent of those surveyed. The movie columns — the only samples of my Reader work reprinted in this book — come in third (51.4 percent) in the same survey, with front-cover articles in second place and cartoons in fourth. This doesn’t, however, make my contributions the most popular. In a separate survey of the two most enjoyed features in the paper, my movie columns place sixth and my listings come in ninth. Most of the paper’s highly targeted readership is single (77 percent) and white (again 77 percent), with a median age of thirty-one and a median annual household income of $39,500 — quite close to my own Reader salary.
Each week, one or more capsule reviews are featured with a still and designated “Critic’s Choice,” and I’ve often been told that a “Critic’s Choice” assigned to an alternative venue will often (though not invariably) guarantee a full house. (The same is true to a slightly lesser degree of films at art houses.) My longer reviews exert the same relative degrees of influence to somewhat lesser extents.
Another indication of the effect of my reviews is the correspondence I receive from readers. It certainly runs the gamut from love letters to hate parcels — I haven’t yet received any marriage proposals, but one irate white man objecting to my defense of a Spike Lee movie actually enclosed a piece of his shit in his envelope — though on the whole, the sympathetic responses far outweigh the unsympathetic ones, and some of the former have been enormously gratifying. The fact that I’ve moved around a lot and lived abroad actually seems to count in my favor — which rarely seemed true in New York, where it was generally assumed that if I hadn’t done most of my spadework locally, it couldn’t have been very important.
When I combine these responses from correspondents with those I get from Chicagoans whom I personally meet, the net effect of all this steady feedback is that I feel like a respected member of a community — something I’ve experienced comparably in my career, and to a lesser degree, only when I was in London in the mid-1970s. It’s a very nice feeling, and one that I continually try to honor and justify in what I write.