‘The Godfather’ Reviewed

films in focus

It seems that the first question everyone asks about “THE GODFATHER” is concerned with Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. More exclamation, in fact, than explanation. More than one whisperer intimated that Brando’s make-up (by Dick Smith, the auteur also of Dustin Hoffman’s Shangri-La face-furrows in “Little Big Man”) was so masterful that the Brando we all know and love had disappeared completely beneath it. I must admit that some of the advance hype had gotten to me by the time I sat braced in my seat for the screening of “The Godfather.” I was determined to discern Brando beneath any disguise mere humans could devise.

The picture opened with a face outlined against a splotched blue background with no spatial frame of reference, a background not so much abstract as optically mod with a slow zoom to take us into the milieu by degrees. But that face! I was stunned. How had Brando managed it? The eyes, the ears, the nose, the chin. It didn’t look anything at all like Brando. And the voice was equally shattering in it unfamiliar pitch. I began groping for adjectives like “eerie” and “unearthly.” Gradually the face began to recede into the background, and I heard a familiarly high-pitched voice somewhere in the foreground. I suddenly recalled the plot of the novel and thus I realized that the face looming in front of me did not resemble Brando’s simply because it wasn’t Brando’s. (I learned later that the face and voice in question for the role of Bonasera belonged to a 20th-billed actor named Salvatore Corsitto who gets no points for looking like himself.)

When Brando himself finally materialized on the screen as Don Vito Corleone, I could see it was Brando all the way. There was no mistaking the voice even with the slow-motion throaty whine Brando used to disguise it. Brando’s range has always been more limited by his voice than his Faustian admirers cared to admit. That is why his best roles have always played against the voice by negating it as a mechanism of direct communication. Brando’s greatest moments are thus always out of vocal synch with other performers. Even the famous taxicab scene with Rod Steiger in “On the Waterfront” operates vocally (though not physically or emotionally) as a syncopated Brando soliloquy, a riff on the upper registers of sensitivity and vulnerability resonating all the more in counterpoint to Steiger’s more evenly cadenced street glibness and shrillness. Curiously, Brando has come to embody, often brilliantly, a culturally fashionable mistrust of language as an end in itself. The very mystique of Method Acting presumes the existence of an emotional substratum swirling with fear and suspicion under every line of dialogue. Hence, it is surprising that Brando has not played gangsters more often. The Machiavellian bias of the Method is ideally suited to the ritualized conversations of organized criminals.

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So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about “The Godfather”: Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone, a role Lee J. Cobb could have played in his sleep without any special make-up. Brando’s triumph and fascination is less that of an actor of parts than of a star galaxy of myths. Which is to say that he does not so much lose himself in his part as lift his part to his own exalted level as a star personality. The fact remains, however, that though Brando’s star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone’s non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone has much the biggest and most challenging role in the film, and gives the most problematical performance. It is with Pacino’s role that fact and fantasy come most discordantly into conflict. And it is with the characterization of Michael Corleone that both director-scenarist Francis Ford Coppola and novelist-scenarist Mario Puzo seem to drift away from the rigor of the crime genre into the lassitude of an intellectual’s daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability.

There were many ways to adapt Puzo’s novel to the screen. (There is no question here of fidelity to a text that was merely the first draft of a screen treatment.) Puzo quotes Balzac no less in a foreword conveying a Brechtian implication: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Brando claims to have been representing a typically corporate personality from the ruthlessly American capitalistic system. But “The Godfather” as a whole does not sustain this particular interpretation as effectively as did Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” some years ago. That is to say that Kurosawa and his scenarists came much closer to conjuring up the quasi-criminal ruthlessness of a conglomerate like ITT than do Coppola, Puzo, and Brando. Coppola’s approach tends to be humanistic, ethnic, and almost grotesquely nostalgic. There is more feeling in the film than we had any right to expect, but also more fuzziness in the development of the narrative. “The Godfather” happens to be one of those movies that can’t stay put on the screen. There are strange ghosts everywhere like Richard Conte’s authentically Italian gangster kingpin Barzini evoking memories of “House of Strangers” and “The Brothers Rico,” and Al Martino as Johnny Fontane (alias Frank Sinatra) reportedly walking off the stage of a New York supper club just before “The Godfather” opened and apparently disappearing into that thick mist of forbidden fictions.

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Part 2: March 23, 1972

“THE GODFATHER” is providing additional ammunition, if indeed any were still needed, for the kill-kill-bang-bang forces in the film industry. No, Virginia, this will not be still another article on violence in the movies. The lines forming for “The Godfather” can speak for themselves. What interests me at the moment is less the apparently insatiable hunger of the masses for homicide than the curiously disdainful attitude affected by the popgunnery purveyors toward their material. Gordon Parks, for example, refers derisively to “Shaft” (and, I suppose, the upcoming son of Shaft) as the kind of popular entertainment he must concoct in order to obtain the opportunity to do more serious work. Since Mr. Parks displays no discernible talent in private-eye melodrama, it is to be hoped that he obtains more “serious” assignments as quickly as possible. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola has made it abundantly clear that “The Godfather” was undertaken quite consciously as a “compromise” with the commercial realities of the film industry. And now even Mario Puzo is making noises to the effect that “The Godfather” was written merely to provide the freedom and leisure necessary to turn out something comparable to “The Brothers Karamazov.” Tant pis and all that when we recall that there have been at least a score of gangster movies that have been artistically superior to any of the film versions of “Karamazov.”

Not that there is anything new about the Puzo-Coppola brand of voluptuous Faustianism, which might be subtitled: I sold my soul to the devil for filthy lucre and the roar of the crowd, but I still have my eye on the higher things. John Ford was eulogized through the thirties for turning out three commercial flicks like “Wee Willie Winkie” for the moguls in order to pay for any one serious film like “The Informer” for the mandarins. In retrospect, “Wee Willie Winkie” was never all that bad, and “The Informer” was never all that good. But Faustianism has continued to flourish even to this depressed day when Hollywood swimming pools are hard to come by for even the most corruptible radicals. No one seems to have learned the hard lesson of movie history that the throwaway pictures often become the enduring classics whereas the noble projects often survive only as sure-fire cures for insomnia. Not always, of course, but often enough to discourage the once fashionable game of kitsh-as-catch-can.

That “The Godfather” is almost fatally tainted with condescension follows almost logically from the revelation that the Coppola-Puzo second choice for the title role (after Brando) was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier. There’s nothing like a classy performer to get the public’s mind off the questionable cultural credentials of a popular subject. Still, publicity is publicity, and I have no desire to single out Coppola or Puzo for derision. Any artist is vulnerable enough in the journalistic jungle to claim the privilege of saying that he is saving his best for some later project still safely beyond the claws of the snarling critics. Coppola, particularly, has done good work in the past. His first film,”Dementia-13,” is unknown to all but the most dedicated archaeologists of American-International Corman horrifics. Coppola’s official first film, “You’re a Big Boy Now,” was completely eclipsed by Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate.” What I said at the time (in The American Cinema) is still pertinent: “Francis Ford Coppola is probably the first reasonably talented and sensibly adaptable directorial talent to emerge from a university curriculum in filmmaking. ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ seemed remarkably eclectic even under the circumstances. If the direction of Nichols on ‘The Graduate’ has an edge on Coppola’s for ‘Big Boy,’ it is that Nichols borrows only from good movies whereas Coppola occasionally borrows from bad ones. Curiously, Coppola seems infinitely more merciful to his grotesques than does anything-for-an-effect Nichols. Coppola may be heard from more decisively in the future.”

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Since 1967 Coppola has been heard from with varying degrees of decisiveness in two commercial disasters — “Finian’s Rainbow” and “The Rain People.” Coppola had set up his own studio in the San Francisco area to revolutionize what was left of Hollywood. He sponsored George Lucas’s “THX-1138” and was informally associated with John Korty in what might be called the San Francisco School of lyrical realism and dissonant humanism. “Finian’s Rainbow” was a hopelessly anachronistic project to begin with, a moldy bone to the blacks tossed by self-satisfied liberals of the forties in the mistaken belief that bigotry was confined to that picturesque terrain South of Schubert Alley. Coppola did his best with Petula Clark and the badly miscast Fred Astaire, but the show simply sank into the realistic landscape. Another compromise perhaps? Certainly, Coppola’s heart was more completely committed to “The Rain People,” an itinerant production of uncommon emotional intensity.

I met Coppola at Bucknell when he was making “The Rain People” aboard a land yacht, traveling, as it were, across the real face of America in search of sociological truth with an improvised scenario. I remember being as impressed by Coppola’s intelligence as I was suspicious of his professed intentions. People who go out looking for America always seem to know in advance what they are going to find. Alienation and Anomie, Loneliness and Lethargy, Late Night Whining and Daily Paranoia. Coppola never succeeded in establishing the characterization of Shirley Knight’s wandering wife, and thus his narrative drifted without a psychological rudder. Still, the wife’s encounters with James Caan’s punchy jock and Robert Duvall’s sympathetically lecherous state trooper lifted the film to the behavioral heights (and fights) of “Petulia” and “Point Blank,” two of the more brilliant explosions of the San Francisco area, if not of the San Francisco school, the formal sublimity of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” representing, of course, a different tradition altogether.

The failure of “The Rain People” and “THX-1138” and the Korty films can be attributed partly to the inability of the traditional distribution and exhibition patterns to funnel a new kind of audience that is presumably panting for it. Or is there really that much of a new audience for movies? Whatever the explanation, Coppola had the satisfaction of having established his artistic identity as a director at the cost of his commercial solvency as a producer. He therefore approached “The Godfather” less as a creative opportunity than as a crutch for his stumbling career.

I am convinced that “The Godfather” could have been a more profound film if Coppola had shown more interest (and perhaps more courage) in those sections of the book which treated crime as an extension of capitalism and as the sine qua non of showbiz. Much of the time spent boringly in Sicily might have been devoted to the skimming operations in Las Vegas, and to the corporate skullduggery in Hollywood. A very little bit of the corrosively Odetsian wit of the fifties in “The Big Knife” and “Sweet Smell of Success” could have gone a long way here in relating the Mafia to our daily life. Instead, Coppola has taken great pains to make “The Godfather” seem like a period piece. Antique cars, ill-fitting clothes (especially for loose-framed Diane Keaton’s WASP wardrobe), floppy hats, vintage tabloid front pages featuring dead gangsters of a bygone era all contribute to Coppola’s deliberate distancing tactics. Worst of all is the sentimental distinction between the good-bad guys and the bad-bad guys on the pseudoprophetic issue of narcotics distribution.

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The production stories connected with “The Godfather” seem to take pride in the concessions granted to organized crime so that the film could be shot on New York locations without being shot up and shut down. Hence, there is no reference to the “Mafia” as such or to the “Cosa Nostra” as such, but merely to “The family.” It is as if producer Albert S. Ruddy were trying to enhance the diabolical reputation of his subject so that audiences would feel the chill of gossipy relevance. Since “The Godfather” is about as unkind to the Mafia as “Mein Kampf” is to Adolf Hitler, it is hard to understand why the local little Caesars didn’t pay Ruddy a commission for all the free publicity. However, even if Ruddy had not made all his noble sacrifices to the Mob for the sake of his muse, it is fairly certain that a realistic director like Coppola would have insisted on shooting his scenario on authentic locations. After all, wasn’t that the whole point of Coppola’s original safari from Hollywood to San Francisco: to escape from Hollywood’s synthetic sound stages and infinitely illusionist set designers?

And so we see Al Pacino and Diane Keaton walking out of the Radio City Music Hall ostensibly during the Christmas Season of 1945. How do we know it is 1945? The marquee has been made up to advertise Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” And here we have one of the paradoxes of plastic realism. It just so happens that I saw “The Bells of St. Mary’s” at the Music Hall in 1945, and the scene Pacino so painstakingly recreates before my eyes is false and strained in every way except the most literal. As the production notes tell us, “crowds gathered to stare at the old-time automobiles and ancient taxis with the legend ’15 cents for first 1/2 mile’ fare rates painted on the doors. Meanwhile, ushers ran up and down the street informing the public that the film playing was Elaine May and Walter Matthau in “A New Leaf” and the stage show was the 1971 Easter Show.”

Nonetheless, the plastic realism of the marquee and the old cabs cannot compensate for the sociological distortion of the empty sidewalks and the absent hustle and bustle. Around Christmas of 1945 at the Music Hall was a pre-television festive crowd tableau such as we shall never see again in our lifetime. An old-time Hollywood illusionist like Vincente Minnelli would have captured the populist lilt of that moment whereas Coppola has captured only the plastic lint. Minnelli’s vision would have been that of the warm animal kingdom whereas Coppola’s is merely that of the cold mineral.

Similarly, few of the “more than 120 locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Richmond” justified the trouble they took with any special aura of authenticity. Indeed, too often the studied and constricted framing of the “real” location only emphasized the artifices of the scenario. So little of Mott Street is utilized for gunning down Brando that the entire effect could easily have been reconstructed on a back lot. Location shooting has always been more of a Pandora’s Box than realistic pundits have ever wanted to admit. If I see one more set of play-actors cruising around the canals of Venice with all the natives looking for the camera (or for Erich Segal on one of the gondolas), I shall sing “O Solo Mio” a cappella. To escape from the alleged tyranny of the set it is necessary to conceive a much looser scenario than any now envisaged for most movies.

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As it is, Coppola spends much too much time savoring each location as if he were afraid audiences might not sufficiently appreciate its authenticity. There is remarkably little elision of movement for a modern (or even a classical) movie. People walk through rooms, clump, clump, clump, as if they were measuring the floor for a rug. At times I would have welcomed even a wipe to jolly things along with page-turning dispatch.

Coppola’s treadmill technique is merely a symptom of his sense of priorities. The trouble began with the scenario’s lack of concern for the characters it could not wait to slaughter. The first murder is a genuine shocker, not simply because of its bizarre choreography (even more gruesome than in the book), but also because even after the unexplained first murder in “The French Connection,” we are still not accustomed to having people we barely know bumped off on the screen. Puzo always provided a background dossier on his victims in his novel, and some objective mechanism for doing these dossiers a la “The Battle of Algiers”might have been devised for the movie. Coppola prefers to skim the surface of the novel for violent highlights, and thus discard all the documentation. However, it has been my impression that the rumored involvement of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the narrative was the big talking point of the novel. Who cares that much about Joe Profaci and his brood except on the mythic level of glorified gangsterdom? By contrast, Sinatra and his colleagues and conquests have always provided the stuff of forbidden fantasies for precisely the type of urban wage-slave that stands on line to see “The Godfather.” After Vegas and Hollywood, how can you keep ’em down on Long Beach?

Coppola does his best to narrow the focus of “The Godfather” to manageably monstrous proportions. His film is neither tragedy nor sociology, but a saga of monsters with occasionally human expressions. Even the irony of invoking the “family” as the basic social unit is not pursued beyond a desultory conversation between Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). The irony is not that the Corleone family is a microcosm of America, but rather that it is merely a typical American family beset by the destructively acquisitive individualism that is tearing American society apart. It is an idea that Chaplin developed so much more profoundly in “Monsieur Verdoux:” that if war, in Clausewitz’s phrase, is the logical extension of diplomacy, then murder is the logical extension of business. This notion is mentioned here and there in “The Godfather,” but never satisfactorily developed. There is simply no time. Another shot, another murder. And the crowds are keeping a box-score on every corpse. Let’s not disappoint them with a meditation on machismo and materialism. We can do that on the next picture, the “serious” one, the one the crowds will stay away from in droves. ❖


Citizen Kael vs. ‘Citizen Kane’

“‘Voice in the Wind,’ a heartfelt shoestring quickie shot in 13 days, is a pretty awful moving picture, I realize, but I was touched by its sincerity and by a number of things in it, and was sympathe­tically interested in a good deal more. It is being advertised as ‘a strange new kind of moving picture,’ and that makes me realize, as the excitement over the ‘originality’ of ‘Citizen Kane’ used to, that already I belong to a grizzling generation.” 

James Agee, the Nation, March 18, 1944, reprinted in “Agee on Film”

Pauline Kael’s two-part article on “Citizen Kane” (“Raising Kane”The New Yorker, February 20 and 27, 197[1]) reportedly began as a brief introduction to the published screenplay, but, like Topsy, it just growed and growed into a 50,000-word digression from “Kane” itself into the life and times and loves and hates and love-hates of Pauline Kael.

My disagreement with her position begins with her very first sentence:

“‘Citizen Kane’ is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened.” I can think of hundreds of “American talking pictures” that seem as fresh now as the day they opened. Even fresher. “Citizen Kane” is certainly worthy of revival and reconsideration, but it hardly stands alone even among the directorial efforts of Orson Welles. To believe that “Citizen Kane” is a great American film in a morass of mediocre Hollywood movies is to misunderstand the transparent movieness of “Kane” itself from its Xanadu castle out of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”  to its menagerie out of “King Kong” to its mirrored reflections out of old German doppleganger spectacles. Not that Miss Kael makes any extravagant claims about the supposed greatness of the film on which she has devoted so much newsprint. “It is a shallow work,” she decides, “a shallow masterpiece.”

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One wonders what Miss Kael considers a deep masterpiece. “U-Boat 29” perhaps? Actually, the closest she comes to comparing “Kane” with the higher depths of cinema is in a parenthetical aside of dubious relevance: “Like most of the films of the sound era that are called masterpieces, ‘Citizen Kane’ has reached its audience gradually over the years rather than at the time of release. Yet, unlike the others, it is conceived and acted as entertainment in a popular style (unlike, say, ‘Rules of the Game’ or ‘Rashomon’ or ‘Man of Aran,’ which one does not think of in crowd-pleasing terms).”

“Man of Aran,” with its excessive sea-pounding on the soundtrack making it as falsely exotic in its own time as “Ramparts of Clay” is in ours, was certainly never conceived in crowd-pleasing terms. But “Rules of the Game” and “Rashomon” are something else again even in French and Japanese respectively. If anything, both films are more rousingly entertaining and more satisfyingly lucid than “Kane.” Their emotions are stronger, their gestures broader, their climaxes more violent, their narratives more vigorous, their visual styles less ostentatious, and, no small consideration, their women infinitely warmer and more sensual. Besides, the comparison is even factually questionable. “Rules of the Game” has never been too popular anywhere, but “Kane” and “Rashomon” were instant sensations when they reached the right audiences. It is no derogation to say that they were immediately impressive whereas “Rules of the Game” takes longer to appreciate because of the apparent artlessness of its ironies. Not that Miss Kael bothers to commit her own personal prestige to the greatness of any film. Note, for example, the cautiously impersonal construction of “films of the sound era that are called masterpieces.” Perhaps this tone of cold-fish objectivity is the price of a normally warm-blooded film critic must pay to climb Onward and Upward with the Arts at The New Yorker.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

The plot thickens considerably when Miss Kael drifts away from a half-hearted analysis of “Kane” to the most lively gossip imaginable about the alleged birth-pangs and labor-pains of the script. Bit by bit, “Raising Kane” becomes an excuse to lower the boom on Orson Welles so as to resurrect the reputation of the late Herman J. Mankiewicz. By interviewing only the sworn enemies of Orson Welles, Miss Kael has made herself fair game for Mr. Welles and his more fervent admirers. At the very least, we may expect a reprise of the recriminations exchanged between Peter Bogdanovich and Charles Higham on the occasion of the publication of Mr. Higham’s “The Films of Orson Welles.”

How much of the final script of “Citizen Kane” was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and how much by Orson Welles? I don’t know, and I don’t think Miss Kael, Mr. Bogdanovich, and Mr. Higham do either. Undoubtedly, there will be affidavits aplenty from all sides, but literary collaboration, like marriage, is a largely unwitnessed interpenetration of psyches. Miss Kael demonstrates conclusively that Mankiewicz could have written the entire script unaided, but she cannot possibly know where and when and how and from whom and from what derived all his ideas. As it happens, RKO was successfully sued in 1950 for plagiarism on the officially credited Mankiewicz-Welles script of “Kane” by Ferdinand Lundborg, author of “Imperial Hearst.” Miss Kael tries to pooh-pooh Lundborg’s lawsuit because of the shadow it casts on her own one-sided lawyer’s brief for Mankiewicz. RKO might just as well have been sued, Miss Kael contends, by John Dos Passos for the passages on Hearst in “USA.” Precisely. Who among us can claim complete originality in anything? “Raising Kane” itself bears the by-line of Pauline Kael and of Pauline Kael alone. Yet thousands of words are directly quoted from other writers, and thousands more are paraphrased without credit. Miss Kael deserves her byline because she has shaped her material, much of it unoriginal, into an article with a polemical thrust all her own. Her selection and arrangement of material constitutes a very significant portion of her personal style.

Similarly, Orson Welles is not significantly diminished as the auteur of “Citizen Kane” by Miss Kael’s breathless revelations about Herman J. Mankiewicz any more than he is diminished as the auteur of “The Magnificent Ambersons” by the fact that all the best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington. It is only by virtually ignoring what “Citizen Kane” became as a film that Miss Kael can construct her bizarre theory of film history, namely that “Citizen Kane” along with all the best moments in movies of the ’30s must be credited to a consortium of New Yorker writers gathered together by Harold Ross at Chasen’s, the West Coast auxiliary of the Algonquin. Indeed, Miss Kael writes of Harold Ross in “Raising Kane” with much the same awed tone employed by General Lew Wallace in writing of Christ in “Ben Hur.” Writing of a Ross visit to Hearst’s San Simeon, Miss Kael lacks only a divinely capitalized “H” (“He” for “he”) to achieve a completely Biblical tone: “Harold Ross must have wondered what drew his old friends there, for he came, too, escorted by Robert Benchley.”

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What is most startling about “Raising Kane” is how little it adds to old stories that have been circulating in film magazines with fewer readers than The New Yorker. For example, “Persistence of Vision,” edited by Joseph McBride and publish by the Wisconsin Film Society Press in 1968, contains not only McBride’s “Kane” analysis which Miss Kael snickers at in “Raising Kane” without bothering to identify the author, but also an extended quote from John Houseman to Penelope Houston out of the Sight and Sound of Autumn 1962: “… we had done some work together on ‘Heart of Darkness,’ which was to have been his first picture at RKO, and on something called ‘The Smiler with the Knife.’ After I’d gone back East, Orson continued trying to find a subject. We had a mutual and very brilliant friend, Herman Mankiewicz, a celebrated Hollywood figure, who had recently broken his leg under tragicomic circumstances that I haven’t time to go into. Having goaded each studio in turn into dismissing him, he had sunk to working on some of our radio shows. Orson arrived one night in New York, and over dinner told me that Mankiewicz had come up with an idea for a movie: a multi-faceted story about William Randolph Hearst in which [Welles] would play the title-part and direct. He asked me whether I would work with Mankiewicz as editor and collaborator on the script. I agreed and returned to Hollywood. After several conferences, at which Mankiewicz continued to develop his ideas, we moved him — nurse, plaster cast and all — up to a place in the mountains called Victorville, about a hundred miles from Los Angeles. There we installed ourselves on a guest ranch. Mankiewicz wrote, I mostly edited and the nurse was bored. Orson drove out once for dinner. At the end of three months we returned to Los Angeles with the 220-page script of ‘Kane,’ later called ‘Citizen Kane.’

“This is a delicate subject: I think Welles has always sincerely felt that he, single-handed, wrote ‘Kane’ and everything else that he has directed — except, possibly, the plays of Shakespeare. But the script of ‘Kane’ was especially Mankiewicz’s. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom which he had been carrying around with him for years which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned ‘Kane’ into a film: the dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects — all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make ‘Citizen Kane’ one of the world’s great movies — those were pure Orson Welles.”

The Houseman-Houston interview reads like a digest of “Raising Kane,” and Joseph McBride was obviously aware of this interview when he analyzed “Kane” as “a tragedy in fugal form; thus … also the denial of tragedy.” Aside from cackling at still another film scholar for the benefit of the philistines, Miss Kael creates the impression that McBride and his ilk never had the foggiest notion that Herman J. Mankiewicz had written the screenplay. McBride’s greatest sin is apparently his willingness to consider “Citizen Kane” as a work of art rather than in Miss Kael’s terms as “kitsch redeemed,” a culturally defensive attitude for readers and editors who would be shocked to have any movie taken too seriously. Indeed, by the time Miss Kael is through taking “Kane” apart, it seems considerably more flawed than “The Owl and the Pussycat.” More important, “Kane” is viewed by Miss Kael almost exclusively as a product of the newspaper yarns that preceded it, and not at all as an influence on the inner space excursions of Fellini and Kubrick that followed it. McBride explicitly compares “Kane” to “8 1/2” and is not that comparison more apt than Miss Kael’s likening of “Kane” to “The Front Page,” for Pete’s sake. And what is the black slab in “2001,” but the burnt sled “Rosebud” of “Kane,” the black slab representing the memento of an old civilization, and “Rosebud” the memory of an old man.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

Part 2, April 29, 1971

“‘Citizen Kane,’ The American Baroque” is the pretentious title of a solemn, pedantic, humorless re-evaluation of Kane on the occasion of its revival in 1956. The piece first appeared in the ninth issue of Film Culture (1956) and did not cause too much stir one way or another. The reviewer (or rather rereviewer) was a 28-year­-old New York free-lancer (more free than lance) with a severely limited education in film history. He had just started reviewing movies in the mid-’50s, first under the name of Andrew George Sarris and then merely Andrew Sarris, and by 1956 he had decided that the three greatest films of all times were “Odd Man Out,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Sullivan’s Travels.” Then from 1961 through 1969 he held that the three greatest films of all time were “Lola Montes,” “Ugetsu,” and “La Regle du jeu, ” and now in 1970 he has replaced “Lola Montes” at the top with “Madame de … ” He still likes “Citizen Kane,” “Odd Man Out,” and “Sullivan’s Travels,” but not as much these days as “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Third Man,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “The Palm Beach Story,” not to mention “Sunrise,” “Liebelei,” “La Ronde,” “Day of Wrath,” “Ordet,” “Flowers of St. Francis,” “French CanCan,” “The Golden Coach,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “The Diary of a Country Priest,” “Au Has­ard Balthazar,” “Brink of Life,” “Oharu,” “Seven Chances,” “Sherlock, Jr.,” “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” and “Shop Around the Corner.” Also, the Russians deserved a look-in at least for auld lang syne since there were more personal styles in heaven and earth than were dreamt of even in Orson Welles’s eclectic philosophy. No matter. “Citizen Kane” seemed infinitely less original and revolutionary in 1971 than it had in 1941 or even 1946, and not only because time had passed but also because the past had become more timely. If “Kane” once seemed like a tree in a clearing, it now seemed like a tree in a very large forest, and not even the topmost tree at that.

Nonetheless, despite the current reservations of its author, “Citizen Kane, The American Baroque” has been well received by acade­micians in recent years and repeatedly anthologized, most recently in a fascinating compendium entitled “Focus on Kane” (edited by Ron­ald Gottesman) with contributions by Gottesman, Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, J. A. Pruenda, William Johnson, John O’Hara, Bosley Crowther, Otis Ferguson, Cedric Belfrage, Tangye Lean, Orson Welles, Bernard Herrmann, Gregg Toland, Roy A. Fowler, Peter Cowie, Arthur Knight, Jorge Luis Borges, Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut, Michael Stephanick, and Charles Higham. Some of these pieces constitute the kind of “incense-burning” against which Pau­line Kael’s wise-guy criticism seems to be directed in her wild-swinging mayhem-causing “Raising Kane,” but most of the pieces raise formal and philosophical questions far beyond the dimensions of gossip culled from old newspapers.

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Borges (in 1945) interprets Kane, perhaps predictably, as that “centreless labyrinth” mentioned in Chesterton’s “The Head of Caesar.” But Borges is curiously dubious about the place of Kane in film history: “I dare predict, however, that ‘Citizen Kane’ will endure in the same way certain films of Griffith or of Pudovkin ‘endure’: no one denies their historic value but no one sees them again. It suffers from grossness, pedantry, dullness. It is not intelligent, it is genial in the sombrest and most germanic sense of the word.”

Truffaut makes a curious reference to The New Yorker (no per­son’s name is given) description of Welles as “a genius without tal­ent.” One might just as aptly describe The New Yorker as talent without genius, and Miss Kael’s approach to “Kane” and Welles as more intelligent than insightful. She spends infinitely more time on preliminary (and subsequently discarded) drafts of the script than on the final form of the movie as it materialized on the screen. Her bias is thus as always inescapably literary rather than visual. And it follows that she would be impatient with the visual, aural and emotional coup represented by “Rosebud.” “The mystery in Kane is largely fake,” Miss Kael contends, “and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they’re not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst’s American Weekly used to whip up — the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled.”

The operative words in the preceding passage are “though fun,” a familiarly quaint Kaelian reconciliation of what she can enjoy viscer­ally with what she can endorse cerebrally. As it happens, Miss Kael is not alone in being ashamed of “Rosebud.” Orson Welles has long since repudiated “Rosebud,” or at least since a 1963 interview with Miss Dilys Powell of the Sunday Times (London) excerpted by Peter Cowie in his “The Study of a Colossus”: “It’s a gimmick, really,” said Welles, “and rather dollar-book Freud.”

I disagree with both Miss Kael and Mr. Welles on “Rosebud,” with Miss Kael for the anti-genre prejudice her repudiation of “Rosebud” confirms and with Welles for — who knows — his canny instinct for self-preservation in repudiating “Rosebud” before it came out of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s ghostly past to haunt him.

When I interviewed Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1970 for Show magazine, I had no idea that he would reveal to me the origin of “Rosebud” as a bike that Herman J. Mankiewicz once lost as a child in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Nor did I have any idea that there then was and always had been a bitter feud between the Herman J. and Joseph L. sides of the Mankiewicz family. All I knew was that I had forged a crucial link with the scenarist of a strangely compelling movie called “Ladies’ Man” and “Citizen Kane.” But my feeling of discovery was based first of all on my abiding attachment to “Rosebud,” as not only the key to but also the beating heart of “Citizen Kane” as a movie. It is “Rosebud” that structures Kane as a private-eye investi­gation of a citizen in the public eye, and thus brings us much closer to “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” and the burning R’s on the pillowcases of “Rebecca.”

The problem with defending “Rosebud” as a narrative device is that its very vividness makes it a running gag in our satirically ori­ented culture. How can we possibly take “Rosebud” seriously, Miss Kael complains, after Snoopy has called Lucy’s sled “Rosebud?” The same way, I suppose, we can take Potemkin seriously after Woody Allen has sent a baby carriage rolling down the steps of a Latin American palace in “Bananas.” Both Snoopy and Allen are paying homage to bits of film language transformed by the magical contexts of their medium into poetic metaphors. But whereas Eisenstein’s baby carriage moves from prop to agitprop as it becomes an arche­typal conveyance of revolutionary fervor, “Rosebud” reverberates ­with psychological overtones as it passes through the snows of child­hood (les neiges d’antan) into the fire, ashes and smoke of death. Indeed, the burning of “Rosebud” in Xanadu’s furnace represents the only instance in which the character of Kane can be seen subjec­tively by the audience. It is as if his mind and memory were being cremated before our eyes and we were too helpless to intervene and too incompetent to judge. It is an act of symbolic summation and transfiguration worthy of Truffaut’s passionately paradoxical tribute to the film itself: It is a demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius.”

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The redeeming value of “Rosebud” is its suggestion that men of a certain size and scope and stature are not fully accountable even to history. This implied absence of accountability tends to slow the flow of moralistic molasses dumped over Kane on the most dubious pretexts. Through the years I have seen Kane about thirty times, but until very recently I never bothered to wonder what Kane’s side of the story might have been if there had been somewhat more of his story on the screen. What, for example, is Jed Leland so outraged about in his rambling reminiscences of a rich friend with feet of clay? That Kane’s two marriages failed? Leland’s apparently sexless existence hardly makes him more “human” on that score than Kane. Besides, Kane’s two wives never remotely suggest the stuff of which Rosebuds are made. Ruth Warwick’s Emily is frigid, prissy, conser­vative and, from her quietly hysterical aversion to the idea of Bern­stein in her son’s nursery, at least incipiently anti-Semitic. Dorothy Comingore’s Susan is harsh, raucous, vulgar and almost maniacally mediocre. Ray Collins’s embattled Tammany tiger seems every inch the thief and scoundrel Kane claimed him to be, and Leland himself seems to have no greater ambition in life than to be a drunken dilet­tante full of moral superiority. If Miss Kael had analyzed the Kane-­Leland relationship more fully on its own terms, she might have traced a parallel between Kane and Leland on one track and Hearst and Mankiewicz on the other. There is probably a great deal of Mankiewicz in Leland, and especially in that moment of alcoholic self-righteousness when Leland attacks Kane for not knowing how to get drunk. In vino veritas and all that. Hearst might even stand for all the Hollywood moguls in Mankiewicz moralistic rhetoric. But the Leland-Kane relationship doesn’t play so one-sidedly in the deli­cately pitched intimacy provided by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. Cotten is an actor who can swim under the surface of a characterization with less splash than Welles, and so when Cotten-­Leland talks about drinking with Welles-Kane, he could be talking also about acting. Welles can’t really lose himself in a part the way Cotten can, perhaps because Welles has so much more to lose. Even so, Welles and Cotten climb piggy-back on each other’s lines with such zestful expertness that there is less conflict than complicity in their big renunciation scene. Leland becomes Kane’s alter ego in the peculiarly Wellesian pattern which later couples Othello and Iago, Arkadin and Van Stratten, Falstaff and Hal, and Quinlan and Vargas, not to mention Welles and Cotten in repeat interperform­ances in “Journey into Fear” and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.” Indeed when you add up everything Welles did after Kane and com­pare it with everything Mankiewicz did before and after “Kane,” the sour humor and intransigent ambiguity of “Citizen Kane” would seem to arise more from the personality of Welles than from that of Man­kiewicz. What Mankiewicz has provided is an apparently big subject with faint hints of scandal from one side and large helpings of social consciousness from the other. And “Rosebud,” a symbol that turned out to be more personal than social.

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Back in 1941, Bosley Crowther qualified his enthusiastic review of “Kane” with a complaint about “Rosebud” and the unsolved mystery of Kane: “And the final poignant identification of ‘Rosebud’ sheds little more than a vague, sentimental light upon his character. At the end Kubla Kane is still an enigma — a very confusing one.” Two days after his initial review, Crowther developed his reservations in a Sunday follow-up: “And when the significance of ‘Rosebud’ is made apparent in the final sequence of the film, it provides little more than a dramatic and poign­ant shock. It does not clarify, except by sentimental suggestion, the reason for Kane’s complexity. And so we are bound to conclude that this picture is not truly great, for its theme is basically vague and its significance depends upon circumstances. Unquestionably, Mr. Welles is the most dynamic newcomer in films and his talents are infinite. But the showman will have to acquire a good bit more discipline before he is thoroughly dependable.”

Crowther’s rejection of “Rosebud” as an explanation of Kane is consistent with his later pans of “Wild Strawberries” and “L’Avventura” for their apparent self-indulgence and obfuscation. Crowther’s most influential period in film criticism was the ’40s when his social approach to films coincided with the world-saving concerns of his readers. “Rosebud” is much closer to the arched fishing pole and line of the protagonist’s father in “Wild Strawberries” than to the out­stretched soldier’s hand crumpling up near a butterfly in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Few American films up to “Citizen Kane” had been grown up enough to suggest that we never really grow up, and a boy torn away from his mother at an early age, like Kane, like Welles, least of all. The grandeur of “Rosebud” as a memory is that it is meaningless and trivial to anyone but Kane. Its honor is its confirmation that we are isolated from each other by so much more than our politics and morals, by nothing less, in fact, than our very selves. The only way critics and audiences of the period could stomach the profound pes­simism of “Citizen Kane” was to misconstrue it as a detailed denunciation of a certain kind of American plutocrat. In this respect, the scenario is curiously sluggish and undeveloped next to a political hal­lucination like the Capra-Riskin “Meet John Doe,” which opened shortly before “Citizen Kane” and had about a million times more polemical Americana. Miss Kael never mentions “Meet John Doe” or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Great Dictator.” Why Hearst should have been a more daring target in 1940 than Hitler I have no idea, and, even today, the California lettuce growers seem to have lost few of their fangs from “The Grapes of Wrath.” By any standard, the few minutes of political talk sprinkled in “Citizen Kane” would seem fairly superficial in a high-­school civics textbook. But the mystical process by which the Mer­cury Players parade across a haunted screen never seems to lose its power to fascinate us.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

Part 3: May 27, 1971

Millions of viewers (including this reviewer) who watched the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science presentations of April 15, 1971, were given to understand that Orson Welles had accepted in advance an honorary award from John Huston via a piece of film from Spain where Welles was presumably working on some assign­ment or other. The scenario for this bit of remote-control contrivance had become familiar in recent years: Appreciative Artist Too Busy Abroad to Come to Hollywood but Honored Just the Same. Hus­ton concluded the charade by announcing that he would stop off in Spain (on his way to Ireland) to deliver the Oscar to Orson. But if Hollywood scuttlebutt is to be believed, not only was Welles in town all the time; he shot the “Spanish” footage in his own Los Angeles apartment the week before, and then capped the jest by receiving the statuette from Huston at a local restaurant immedi­ately after the Oscar ceremony. Thus while George C. Scott was attracting all the attention with his public defiance of convention, Welles and Huston, two merry pranksters of an earlier era, were slipping in their own private joke without ever letting their tongues out of their checks.

In their time Welles and Huston had been subjected to the same brand of Faustian rhetoric masquerading as criticism. Both direc­torial careers started out with a bang in 1941, Welles with “Kane,” Huston with “The Maltese Falcon.” Both found themselves a conti­nent away when an ambitious project was being butchered in the cutting room, Welles in South America during the martyrdom of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Huston in Africa during the re­duction of “The Red Badge of Courage.” Both men had bummed around Europe in their youth, and never really lost their wanderlust sufficiently to settle down in Hollywood for the more tedious tasks of movie-making. Both men supplemented their directorial careers with acting, and both men ended up disillusioning their earliest ad­mirers. But there is really no need to shed crocodile tears over their alleged decline.

Cinema, like politics, is the art of the possible. There are too many conflicting temperaments and forces at work at every stage of production to achieve purity of creation. And not only in Holly­wood, as Pauline Kael seems to suggest in “Raising Kane.” It is only because she is so blissfully unaware of French and Japanese philisti­nism that she can treat Renoir and Kurosawa as miraculously unfet­tered creatures of inspiration in comparison with their Hollywood counterparts. Besides, most of her New Yorker readers salivate sym­pathetically to the mere mention of Renoir because the name re­minds them of the kind of paintings they would like to possess. After a disastrous screening of “The Rules of the Game” at the Har­vard Club in New York, I can assure Miss Kael that most of her readers would despise all but one or two of the master’s movies, painter father or no painter father. As for Kurosawa, his samurai epics are more or less imaginative imitations of the Hollywood westerns Miss Kael professes to despise on principle.

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And what of the many screenwriters associated with Renoir, Kuro­sawa, Antonioni, Fellini and on occasion, even Bergman? When shall we read their stories with any portion of the extended detail Miss Kael has devoted to the late Herman J. Mankiewicz? Indeed, if foreign directors had to satisfy the Screenwriters Guild requirement of writing at least 55 percent of the dialogue to qualify for a writing credit, very few of the art-house deities would qualify. It is therefore maliciously misleading of Miss Kael and her cohorts to argue that directors like Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks had nothing to do with the preparation of their scripts when the astonishing stylistic continuity of their careers demonstrates the contrary. Only recently John Gielgud (no auteurist he) casually remarked on a talk show that Hitchcock had “written in” big parts for Peter Lorre and Robert Young to rival Gielgud’s original lead role in “Secret Agent.” Hollis Alpert has taken up the cudgels for Miss Kael in the Saturday Re­view as part of his long crusade for greater recognition of the screen­writer. (Ironically, Alpert once won an award for criticism from the Directors Guild, and I never.)

As much as I respect Alpert’s point of view, I must point out that auteurism was never intended to enthrone all directors above all writers but rather to identify the source of a style in movies worthy of memory. Often there is more than one source and it is up to the critic to track down every contribution whenever possible. What I find peculiar, however, is the malignant anti-auteurism in the writ­ings of Kael and Alpert as if auteurism were an established religion that had carried the day. As it happens, Sarris, Kael, Alpert, Kauff­mann and even noted “mass critics” King Weed and Gene Shallow are jammed in a phone booth far from the madding crowd. (I don’t even consider such voluntary exiles from the public pulse as John Simon, the greatest film critic of the 19th century, and Gene Youngblood, the greatest film critic of the 21st.) The point is that we are all splitting hairs over questions only vaguely understood and appreciated by the majority of our readers. Still, I must make every effort to keep the record as balanced as possible, and it is in this spirit of scholarly rectification that I am raising some “Kane” of my own.

As Miss Kael makes clear in her own article, it is not entirely the fault of Orson Welles that Herman J. Mankiewicz has tended to be the forgotten man of “Citizen Kane.” Indeed, nothing Miss Kael writes about Mankiewicz is inconsistent with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cruel but candid write-off in a letter to Maxwell Perkins dated April 23, 1938 (from “The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” edited and with an introduction by Andrew Turnbull): “Hard times weed out many of the incompetents, but they swarm back — Herman Mankiewicz, a ruined man who hasn’t written ten feet of continuity in two years was finally dropped by Metro, but immediately picked up by Columbia! He is a nice fellow that everybody likes and has been bril­liant, but he is being hired because everyone is sorry for his wife­ — which I think would make him rather an obstacle in the way of making good pictures. Utter toughness toward the helpless, com­bined with super-sentimentality — Jesus, what a combination!”

Miss Kael digs into the dry rot that had set in almost thirteen years before Fitzgerald’s letter: “It was a lucky thing for Mankiewicz that he got the movie job when he did, because he would never have risen at the Times, and though he wrote regularly for The New Yorker (and remarked of those of the Algonquin group who didn’t, ‘The part-time help of wits is no better than the full-time of half­wits’), The New Yorker, despite his pleas for cash, was paying him partly in stock, which wasn’t worth much at the time. Mankiewicz drank heavily, and the drinking newspaperman was in the style of the World, but not in the style of the Times.”

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Miss Kael does manage to score a coup for Mankiewicz’s author­ship of “Kane” with an elaborate description of his misadventure in October 1925 with a review of Gladys Wallis (the wife of Samuel Insull) in “The School for Scandal.” Mankiewicz reportedly collapsed on his typewriter in a drunken stupor a la Jed Leland with his un­speakable (and unprintable) notice still in the carriage. By contrast, Miss Kael hastily downgrades the significance of the fact that the name Bernstein meant something in the early life of Welles. We must turn to Peter Cowie’s “The Study of a Colossus” for the informa­tion “that Welles’ own mentor in youth was a certain Doctor Bern­stein who presented him, among other things, with a puppet theatre when he was in his infancy.” Could this puppet theater have been the atrocity about which the first Mrs. Kane complains at the break­fast table? Fortunately Miss Kael’s is not likely to be the last word on such speculations.

Not that Miss Kael can be charged with excessive charity toward Mankiewicz’s weaknesses and afflictions. Especially memorable in a horrible way is her zestful retelling of an Ezra Goodman anecdote from “The 50 Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood” about an alleged gaffe perpetrated by Mankiewicz all over the dinner table of a fastid­ious Hollywood producer named Arthur Hornblow, Jr. According to members of the Mankiewicz family, the Goodman anecdote was heavily embroidered, and it does seem strange that a supposed champion of Mankiewicz should repeat such an unflattering account verbatim.

Even Mankiewicz’s looks at the time of Kane undergo a harsh surveillance by Miss Kael: “It would be hard to explain his sudden, early aging and the thickening of his features and the transparently cynical-look on his face in later photographs.” Miss Kael’s moraliz­ing extends to Mankiewicz’s modus operandi: “Mankiewicz had been hacking out popular comedies and melodramas for too long to write drama; one does not dictate tragedy to a stenotypist.” No, one presumably writes tragedy in a garret with a goosequill. Suddenly we perceive that “Raising Kane,” like Miss Kael’s previous production story on “The Group,” is a saga with no heroes or heroines apart from Miss Kael herself. Orson and Herman, the two protagonists and antagonists of “Raising Kane,” are reduced to the dimensions re­spectively of an exhibitionistic egomaniac and a self-destructive hack. Meanwhile, Miss Kael’s gyroscopic ego preserves her moral superiority over all semblances of otherness. She heaps her scorn promiscuously over radicals and reactionaries, swimming-pool Stalinists and movie-industry moguls, young right-on students and old silent-movie buffs, Bazinians and Kracauerites. And in the process of putting everyone else down, she replaces the scholarly oversimplifica­tions of the past with her own idiosyncratic oversimplifications. Hence, every movie made before 1929 is eradicated from the stream of film history through this curious tribute to the hitherto despised early talkies: “And the public responded, because it was eager for modern American subjects. Even those who were children at the time loved the fast-moving modern-city stories. The common-place­ness — even tawdriness — of the imagery was such a relief from all that silent ‘poetry.’ The talkies were a great step down. It’s hard to make clear to people who didn’t live through the transition how sickly and unpleasant many of those ‘artistic’ silent pictures were­ — how you wanted to scrape off all that mist and sentiment.”

By her own calculation, Miss Kael was about eight years old when talking pictures came in, and it is not surprising that an eight-year-old should prefer speech to titles. Even today children tend to reject foreign films with subtitles. Television, if nothing else, has conditioned young people to listen to language rather than read it. But a generation of immigrants, among whom were my father and mother, actually learned English by reading the intertitles of silent movies. The point of view of this generation would differ from Miss Kael’s, which is why a film historian cannot rely merely on childhood mem­ories. I was born in 1928 just about when sound was coming in, and I can’t depend on childhood memories at all for an appraisal of the silent era, but what little burrowing I have done has revealed a much greater diversity of style and content than Miss Kael’s sweeping gen­eralization would suggest. Twenties movies featured even more fun and knockabout humor than the ’30s, and not merely through their classic clowns — Chaplin,  Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, et al., but also through all sorts of relatively straight comedy players, including Marion Davies, the hapless obsession of William Randolph Hearst and the subject of Dorothy Comingore’s shrill car­icature as Susan Alexander.

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Miss Kael is on even weaker ground when she credits all The New Yorker writers her stable of researchers could check out with effect­ing nothing less than a revolution in Hollywood tastes: “They changed movies by raking the old moralistic muck with derision. Those sickly Graustarkian romances with beautiful pure high-born girls and pathetic lame girls and dashing princes in love with commoners, and all the Dumas and Sabatini and Blasco-lbanez, now had to compete with the freedom and wildness of American comedy.” Aside from taking a poke at Stroheim and Ingram, this passage is notable only for the fatuous falseness of its generalization. “Docks of New York,” “Sunrise,” “The Crowd,” “The River,” “Lonesome,” “A Girl in Every Port,” “Beggars of Life,” “That Certain Thing,” “Show People,” “The Jack Knife Man,” to name but a small sampling of the silents, were far closer to a kind of grubby grandeur than to Grau­stark.

A false record of film history is relevant here only to the extent that it contributes to a spectacular misinterpretation of “Citizen Kane” itself. After thousands of words of interesting gossip, “Raising Kane” brings us up short with the terse bulletin: “Which takes us right up to ‘Citizen Kane,’ the biggest newspaper picture of them all — the picture that ends with the introduction of the cast and a reprise of the line ‘I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.’ ” Here at least Miss Kael can be credited with a certain degree of originality, however bizarre, in treating “Citizen Kane” as the last of the Stop-the-Presses movies instead of the first of the Stop-the-World-I-Want-To-Get-Off films. What most other critics take to be a coffin, the irrepressible Miss Kael takes to be a barrel of laughs. A man dies, his best friend spits on his memory, his second wife be­comes an alcoholic, a sled is burned, and everyone gets old in the process. Next Week, East Lynne.

But to support her oddly jocular reaction to “Kane,” Miss Kael is compelled to discount what Herman J. Mankiewicz actually did as a screenwriter for close to 30 years and try to place him as a person in the midst of the Algonquin Circle. Names are dropped with gay abandon, a Dorothy Parker here, a Nathanael West there. No need then to mention such relatively heroic Hollywood work-horses as Robert Riskin and Dudley Nichols. They never dined with Harold Ross, and hence they don’t count even though they wrote a hundred times as many funny lines as Parker and West put together. Besides, once you start mentioning genuine professionals like Riskin and Nichols, you have to start mentioning directors like Capra and Ford and McCarey, and they too had nothing to do with the Algonquin Circle. As for Herman J. Mankiewicz — that is, the real Herman J. Mankiewicz — his forte was never comedy at all but what Miss Kael would describe derisively as romantic melodrama. His most memo­rable movies before Kane are two interesting William Powell vehi­cles entitled “Man of the World” and “Ladies’ Man,” and after “Kane,” two oddly convoluted movies for, respectively, Robert Siodmak (“Christmas Holiday”) and Nicholas Ray (“A Woman’s Secret”), the latter movie strikingly anticipatory of brother Joe’s “All About Eve.”

A man’s life, as Kane suggests, is more than a jigsaw puzzle. Even when we have fitted all the pieces together, we may have difficulty understanding the completed portrait. It may be that Herman J. Mankiewicz’s troubles started long before he came to Hollywood, but once there he encountered a crisis in film history which should at least be considered as part of his malaise. Back in 1931, the plot of “Man of the World” did not cause too much excitement. According to the Harrison’s Reports of March 28, 1931, “The hero was a publisher of a scandal sheet. His system was to appear at the home of a wealthy person with an advance proof of some item that was to be printed about him. He would claim to be desirous of hav­ing this blackmailer prosecuted, but the person involved would never consent to do this as it would be embarrassing. Instead he would pay him hush money, which he thought would be turned over to the black­mailer, but which the hero would keep. At the home of one of his vic­tims he meets the heroine. They actually fall in love with each other. He tells her about his past, but she is willing to marry him. The hero later realizes the impossibility of this when his former sweetheart who was his blackmailing assistant tells him that he can never escape from the past. He prints an item about the heroine and himself and presents it to her uncle. In her presence he accepts a check for $10,000 as hush money, and she is completely disillusioned. The police force him to leave Paris and he goes to South Africa with his former sweetheart. The heroine leaves for America, glad to be rid of him.

“The story was written by Herman Mankiewicz. It was directed by Richard Wallace. In the cast are William Powell, Carole Lombard, Wynne Gibson, Guy Kibbee and others. The talk is very indistinct and at times even difficult to understand. Not suitable for children, or even for adults. Not a Sunday show. Not a substitution. Note: Two con­ceiled advertisements are used in this picture; mention is made of both Duns and Bradstreets.”

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The exhaustively censorious coverage of Harrison’s Reports neglects one slight plot detail. The hero tears up the check from his beloved’s uncle and lets the pieces flutter out to sea. This check­-tearing gesture is repeated more obliquely in “Kane” by Jed Leland via a letter to Kane with the torn pieces of a check inside.

“Ladies’ Man,” the next month, reflected more sordidness and self­ hatred than even “Man of the World.” Powell plays a self-mocking gigolo, almost redeemed from his shameful profession by the true love of Kay Francis, but finally destroyed by the unbridled passions of a mother (Olive Tell) and daughter (Carole Lombard) team in wicked high society. Powell’s actual Nemesis is an implacable banker­-father-husband (Gilbert Emery) who intervenes for the sake of his daughter after tolerating the indiscretions of his wife. It is the night of the masquerade ball. Powell is dressed in the grotesque costume of Potemkin to his elderly mistress’s Catherine. The dignified hus­band comes to Powell’s room and ends up hurling him from the balcony. He then goes downstairs and takes his place alongside his wife for the Grand March. She knows intuitively what has happened and walks beside him fearfully but proudly. The police are waiting. But the march continues round and round. William Everson has compared this extraordinary figure of style to the climactic moments of Jacques Prevert in “Lumiere d’Ete” (directed by Jean Gremillon) and “The Lovers of Verona” (directed by Henri Cayatte). They are, like the climactic moments in “Ladies’ Man,” more the moments of a writer than of a director. If Sternberg had directed “Ladies Man,” it might have been one of the great movies of the ’30s. Unfortu­nately, the director was Lothar Mendes, and the movie was con­signed to oblivion except for the assiduous research of old-movie buffs. Still, I could see at last on the screen some prior evidence of the feeling that went into Kane and suddenly Kane itself took on a new coloration in the frightful tension between an old writer loaded down with fables of shame and guilt and a young director loaded down with fantasies of power and glory. For Mankiewicz, “Kane” may have been the last stop on this earth, and for Welles the first step on the moon.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

Part 4: June 3, 1971

The one expression critics invariably used to describe Herman Mankiewicz’s dialogue was “grown-up,” not witty or New Yorkerish or hilarious, but simply grown-up. And the dialogue in “Citizen Kane” is nothing if not grown-up. The trouble is that after 1933, serious grown-up screenwriters were increasingly plagued by a childish censorship, and only grown-up critics like Otis Ferguson and Meyer Levin even noticed the havoc that was being wrought. I suspect that Mankiewicz became more despondent and frustrated in this period, partly because his bitterness and cynicism could no longer find per­missible plots in which to function and partly because Paramount itself was on the downgrade with its arty, adult projects. In all the space she has devoted in “Raising Kane” to an analysis of the script, Pauline Kael never mentions the brothel scene with Kane and Le­land, a scene that the censors knocked out of Mankiewicz’s original script, one of many elisions that tended to tip the viewpoint of the film from the more sensual Mankiewicz to the more theatrical Welles. Curiously, the rigid censorship that was in force in 1941 worked to the advantage of Welles vis-a-vis other directors with fewer hang ups about women.

Why, then, has Welles virtually obliterated Mankiewicz from view over the years? For one thing, Welles has continued living and, by living, incarnating “Kane.” Pauline Kael, Hollis Alpert and even the usually perspicacious Richard Corliss are in error when they blame the auteurists and other director-cultists for glorifying the director. Welles happened to be everything on “Kane,” producer, director, star and unit publicist. It is as if Marlon Brando, Stanley Kubrick and Darryl F. Zanuck were the same person. And yet it is Welles, more than any director up to his time, who made directing fashionably conspicuous. As Frank S. Nugent noted in the New York Sunday Times of June 12, 1938: “Speaking of Frank Borzage and George Stevens, as we expect to, brings up the matter of the unsung motion picture director. We remember a poll conducted by one of the theatre circuits not so long ago in which the patrons were invited to name their favorite stars, pictures, stories and directors. John Public and his wife sprinted through the first three categories and bluffed or quit cold on the fourth. Adolph Zukor, of all people, was voted the favorite director by some; Sam Goldwyn was an­other contender. As we recall it, Ernst Lubitsch won in a walk. His name seemed to be easy to remember. Actually, it was no contest.

“Since this is a day of quizzes, spelling bees and all kinds of brain-teasers, we wonder how many persons could identify the following in terms of their recent, or their most outstanding pictures: Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, Wesley Ruggles, Clarence Brown, Fritz Lang, Al­fred Hitchcock, Robert Stevenson, Michael Curtiz, Norman Taurog and Victor Fleming. Or would you score better if the professor asked you to name the director of “The Informer,” of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” of “Wells Fargo,” or “A Slight Case of Murder” and “The Good Earth”? (Don’t be upset if you wind up with a dunce cap: you could catch us just as easily.)

“The point, if any, is not merely that we are apt to forget the director after the fact — which would be at most a pardonable lapse of memory but that we frequently ignore him during it. In clearer words, most of us take a film’s direction for granted, whether it is good or bad, and toss the laurel wreath or the poison ivy sprig at the players. Quite possibly the oversight works as often as it does to his disadvantage. Still, we feel it’s high time to make the director come out from behind those false whiskers and take his place in the hot glare of the cinema spotlight.”

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Actually the auteurist are still fighting an uphill battle to make movie audiences conscious of style, despite all the apparent published evidence to the contrary. The player is still the thing, be he John Wayne or Dustin Hoffman or, to the immediate point, Orson Welles. Admittedly, Welles often shows a tendency to swallow up subordinate credits and thinner egos. For years he has been hinting broadly that he had everything to do with the carousel scene in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” and he has never gotten over the bad habit of directing other directors for whom he is ostensibly only act­ing, and sometimes barely that. This is the monstrous side of his personality, but since Kane he has displayed a great many more in­teresting and compassionate sides to this same personality, especially in movies like “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Lady from Shanghai,” “Touch of Evil,” and “Falstaff.” Still, the plot line of “Mr. Arkadin” could be interpreted as a parable of an artist setting out to eliminate all his collaborators.

However, nothing is to be gained in the attempted resurrection of Herman J. Mankiewicz by painting him as something he is not, spe­cifically the comic muse of the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera,” movies from which Mankiewicz was fired very early in the proceedings. By crediting Mankiewicz with these movies on the flimsiest evidence, Miss Kael defrauds writers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, director Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup”), writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and director Sam Wood (“A Night at the Opera”) in much the same way that she claims Welles and the Wellesians have defrauded Herman J. Mankiewicz. Besides, the two funniest episodes in “Duck Soup” — the lemonade war between Harpo and Edgar Kennedy, the mirror sequence — are de­rived from old Charlie Chase and Laurel and Hardy farces, and Mc­Carey directed both Chase and Laurel and Hardy in the silent era. So much for the Algonquin Circle as the sole dispenser of ’30s movie comedy. Miss Kael probably felt that a relationship, however tenuous, with the Marx Brothers would strengthen her argument that Mankiewicz was a man of mirth. She seems unaware that “Duck Soup” was a flop at the time of its release; and the Marx Brothers were let go at Paramount, as was W. C. Fields a few years later. A great many of today’s comedy classics like “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday” were box-office failures in the ’30s. Paramount and RKO were two of the better studios of the ’30s and they paid the price by not harvesting the corn as assiduously as Metro did. When I look over the list of great films, here and abroad, that have failed to attract audiences in their own time, I find it difficult to endorse Miss Kael’s neat conspiracy theory to explain why “Kane” did not do better than it did. It was no fault of Hearst’s that “Kane” was a complete commercial flop in England, where Hearst had as little influence as Lord Beaverbrook had here. Also, the New York run began tapering off well before its tenth week, as if the word-of-mouth were getting around that Kane was a cold, gloomy movie at a time when cold, gloomy movies were not nearly as fashionable as they are today, and, even so, have you peeked at the grosses for “Persona” lately?

Nor do I agree that the Academy Awards might have turned the tide commercially. Miss Kael neglects to mention what actually did win the Oscar that year: “How Green Was My Valley,” a movie that, though it would not have gotten my vote over “Kane” at the time, is nonetheless the best movie, apart from “Sunrise,” ever to win an Oscar. (I think it is much more disgraceful that “Mrs. Miniver” won the 1942 Academy Award over “The Magnificent Ambersons.”) And even Welles could not quarrel with the choice of John Ford as best director in 1941 by both the New York Film Critics and the Acad­emy. After all, Welles did study for “Kane” under Ford, Frank Capra, King Vidor and Fritz Lang, and if Miss Kael would take another look at “Stagecoach” and “The Informer,” she would find more expres­sionism than she suspects.

Despite her blatant bias against Welles, Miss Kael is to be com­mended for providing as much information as she has on the life and background of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Since his death in 1953 he has indeed been a forgotten man, eclipsed not only by Welles but by his younger brother, Joe. Richard Griffith credits the script “Kane” to Joseph Mankiewicz in the once authoritative film history co­authored with Paul Rotha and entitled The Film Till Now. To this day the Film Daily Year Book records the name of the Oscar winner for best original screenplay in 1941 (along with Orson Welles) as “John Mankiewicz.” The late great French film critic Jean-Georges Auriol assumed that the Mankiewicz who had coauthored “Kane” (Herman) had also directed “Dragonwyck” (Joseph). Part of the problem is the anomalous position of the screenwriter in terms of autonomous creation, a position accurately described for all coun­tries and all times by Alberto Moravia in “Ghost at Noon”: “I want to say a few words about the job of a script-writer, if only to give a better understanding of my feelings at that time. As everyone knows, the script-writer is the one who — generally in collaboration with another script-writer and with the director — writes the script or scenario, that is, the canvas from which the film will later be taken. In this script, and according to the development of the action, the gestures and words of the actors and the various movements of the camera are minutely indicated, one by one. The script is, therefore, drama, mime, cinemato­graphic technique, mise-en-scene, and direction, all at the same time. Now, although the script-writer’s part in the film is of the first impor­tance and comes immediately below that of the director, it remains always, for reasons inherent in the fashion in which the art of the cinema has hitherto developed, hopelessly subordinate and obscure. If, in fact, the arts are to be judged from the point of view of direct expression­ — and one does not really see how else they can be judged — the script­writer is an artist who, although he gives his best to the film, never has the comfort of knowing that he has expressed himself. And so, with all his creative work, he can he be nothing more than a provider of suggestions and inventions, of tit is then the director’s task to nuke me of technical, psychological and literary ideas; it is then the director’s task to make the material according to his own genius and, in fact, to express himself.”

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The proof that Moravia’s maxims still pertain even after Miss Kael has reconsidered the roles of Welles and Mankiewicz lies in the fact that no one has proposed publishing the original first draft of the “Kane” script. What will appear in print (with “Raising Kane” as an added dividend prologue) is the final shooting script of the film now in the can. The published script of “Kane” will therefore not be an independent literary entity like a published play, but rather a printed reference to a can of film stored somewhere. If “Citizen Kane” had appeared as a Mercury Theatre production on stage before reaching the screen, there would be nothing to stop an enterprising producer from redoing it as a play or even making it as a film with, say, Mike Nichols directing Dustin Hoffman as Kane, Jon Voigt as Leland, Alan Arkin as Bernstein, Ali McGraw as the first Mrs. Kane and Barbra Streisand as Susan Alexander. That is why Don Man­kiewicz’s plaintive letter to the Voice associating his late father with Shakespeare, and Orson Welles with Franco Zeffirelli doesn’t really apply to the admittedly arbitrary situation of cinema. There is no ontological reason why screenplays cannot enjoy an independent lit­erary existence and be remade at will every season. It is just the way things are that Herman J. Mankiewicz must play second fiddle to Orson Welles all through eternity.

But if Welles has never been singularly generous to Herman J. Mankiewicz, he was always more than generous to Gregg Toland, and I would support the majority view on “Kane” (against Kael) that the movie looks more extraordinary than it sounds. Indeed, it is bewildering how Miss Kael can evade the responsibility of systematic visual analysis in the case of a cinematographic landmark like “Citizen­ Kane.” She refers to Otis Ferguson’s critique of “Kane” as the best review of the film without coming to grips with his denunciation of the film’s talky, showy theatricality. She never shows the slightest comprehension of the aesthetic issues raised by the film, issues that are unresolved to this day. Nor does she acknowledge the possibility that critics of good mind and good will may thoroughly dislike “Kane.” Instead, she employs “Kane” as a club to batter many of her pet targets all the more vulnerable for being so vague. One would never read Pauline Kael to find out why the camera moves mystically toward and into the mirror after Kane and his myriad reflections have filed past. This would take Miss Kael into those dangerously stylistic speculations that are the great glory of film. But if we are to believe Miss Kael’s protestations on the subject, she deplores any trace of mysticism or even mystery in the medium. The lights must be on at all times and the mind clear, and the intellect engaged.

Still, one must wonder why Miss Kael’s commercially  successful collections of movie reviews have all exploited a conspicuously carnal relationship with her subject at least in their titles — “I Lost It at the Movies,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and “Going Steady.” Methinks the lady doth protest too much. The great appeal of movies is emotional rather than intellectual. To believe otherwise is to lie to yourself and to your readers. Worse still, you spend your whole life scolding your most charming seducers because they do not go out to seek honest work. I think it is a mistake for critics to scold artists, or even to bemoan their bad luck. Whereas Miss Kael tends to be Faustian in these matters, I tend to be Adlerian. It is better to accept and appre­ciate the supposed “disappointments” of our time — Welles, Mailer, Salinger — for what they’ve done rather than for what they might have have done if we had been able to crack the whip over them. They have all done as much as they were humanly capable of doing, and so did Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Dos Passos before them, and thank God for “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “U.S.A.” and never mind the rude avoidance of encores.

I think Welles, Mankiewicz, Toland, Herrmann, Polglaise et al, did very well, all things considered. It wasn’t their fault that Welles longed to be RKO’s Max Reinhardt when all RKO could afford was Val Lewton. But if we shall always remember Welles from “Citizen Kane,” it is not so much because he created it as because it created him and because also, in some ineffable way, he has never been un­worthy of it. Indeed, “Citizen Kane” has been enriched in retrospect by Welles’s extraordinary tenacity in maintaining his personal vision in an often impersonal medium. To argue, as Miss Kael does, that the absolute freedom of the screen artist is the key to film art is to fly in the face of experience. Mike Nichols was as free on “Catch-22” as Welles ever was on “Kane,” and Miss Kael does not seem to have been enchanted. Bruce Baillie has always been free in his fashion, and he never ceases to bore me. Chaplin was economically free throughout his career, and he ended up driving away most of his audience. (And who remembers that Welles supplied Chaplin with the story for “Monsieur Verdoux?”)

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By denying the emotional, even romantic resonance of the movie­going experience, Miss Kael often reduces her admirable lucidity to the most addled literalism, as, for example, when she drags “Kane” down to the level of a newspaper yarn: “Among the minor absurdities of the script is that the ‘News on the March’ men never think of sending a cameraman along with the in­quiring reporter, though Gable had just played a newsreel cameraman in “Too Hot to Handle,” in 1938, and though in “The Philadelphia Story,” which had just opened on Broadway in 1939, and which Mankiewicz’s brother Joe produced for the screen in 1940, while ‘Kane’ was being shot, the magazine team, also obviously from Luce, includes a photographer. There’s something rather pathetic — almost as if ‘Kane’ were a Grade B movie that didn’t have a big enough budget for a few extra players — ­about that one lonely sleuthing reporter traveling around the country while a big organization delays the release of an important newsreel documentary on the head of a rival news chain.”

Miss Kael’s complaint is unique in the annals of “Kane” criticism. Most everyone else has always been comfortable with the notion that the shadowy reporter is at least partly a metaphorical means of prying the truth loose from the past. Besides, he’s not doing a pic­ture spread for Life but, rather, looking for the meaning of one word, a meaning moreover that can be voiced-over the otherwise completed newsreel. Finally, who needs Ruth Hussey trotting around with a camera when Gregg Toland is already staring at each set with his cruel lenses?

Elsewhere, Miss Kael suggests that Welles was tricked by both his script and his camera crew during the shooting. She can’t have it both ways, treating Welles like Machiavelli in one paragraph and like Mortimer Snerd in another. With all the power Welles pos­sessed on either side of the camera and in the cutting room, it is hard to see how he could be “tricked” without his knowledge, com­plicity and even industrious cooperation. Movie-making is more te­dious and complicated than the ordinary run of ego-game-playing can stand, and the memories of the underlings often sacrifice dull facts for demonic fantasies. As it stands, the best criticism of “Kane” (as of most films) has been written by people with little access to all the gossip. At the moment, I prefer to think of “Citizen Kane” as one of the many good movies turned out in Hollywood in the past half century. Even in 1941 there were other good movies to pass the time, and though there was something special about “Kane,” it was comprehensible in terms of a moviegoer’s total experience. The mo­ment someone tells me that “Citizen Kane” is the only good American film I immediately realize that that someone does not fully under­stand even “Kane.” ❖


The Trial of the Chicago 7: ‘The Seditious Movie’

films in focus

“LOVING” gets so much better as it goes along that it emerges almost in retrospect as that rarity of rarities: an intelligent and compassionate treatment of the New York-Westport merry-go-round. Throughout his career in films, Irvin Kershner has shown an unusual interest in eccentric losers stranded in natural locations. “The Luck of Ginger Coffee,” “A Fine Madness,” and “The Flim Flam Man” never quite bridged the chasm between surreal characterizations and too real backgrounds, but, with “Loving,” Kershner has found material that fully conforms to the contradictions of his style. George Segal’s commuting commercial illustrator is a kind of Charlie Bubbles character drowning in Bromo Seltzer, and at first it does not seem clear why he has begun to malfunction as a marital mechanism dedicated to making money as efficiently as possible, but suddenly the why seems less important than the how. Don Devlin’s adaptation of J. M. Ryan’s novel is deceptively elliptical in its exposition, and Kershner’s distant lensing of cramped streets creates a dangerous degree of anguished alienation in the audience, dangerous, that is, because many spectators may turn off from the protagonist before he begins making psychological contact with his predicament. Then suddenly there is one unexpected scene, and another, and still another, and, for a climax, a voyeuristic orgy of childish adultery, combining the possibilities of Marshall McLuhan, Sigmund Freud, and Lewis Carroll. Ultimately, husband and wife (Eva Marie Saint) come together with convulsive violence through mutual shame and humiliation and a shared complicity in the sweet life of suburbia. Segal and Saint are ably supported by Sterling Hayden’s Old Testament plutocrat and vulgarian, and Keenan, Wynn’s grubby agent.

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Not the least of the merits of “Loving” is its acknowledgement that a man’s job is of more than passing importance in the living of his life. Indeed, making a living is often the largest part of making a life. Not that the movie should have been called “Living.” “Loving” is about loving, and the energy it requires to keep relationships in focus. George Segal’s tiredness should make many members of his generation extremely uncomfortable if not utterly uptight. “Loving” strikes too close to home.

I strongly recommend Robert Bresoon’s “MOUCHETTE” at the New Yorker. Also, Maurice Pialat’s “ME,” a stirring testament to the irremediable loneliness and alienation of a child. The film manages the difficult task of expressing feelings without fantasy, and of evoking tears without sentimentality.

1970 Village Voice article by Andrew Sarris about a possible Chicago 7 movie

FOR THE BENEFIT of readers who wish to be kept informed on where it’s at, the following press release dated March 3, 1970 is reprinted in its entirety: “Abbie Hoffman announced this morning (March 3) that he and other defendants in the Chicago conspiracy trial will attempt to offset legal expenses by making their own feature film of the trial.

“Speaking on Alex Bennett’s WMCA radio show, Hoffman said the film will be called ‘The Seditious Movie’ (‘because we’re not allowed to make seditious speeches’). It will star all seven defendants, their lawyers, and a number of ‘sympathetic’ celebrities including Dustin Hoffman (no relation), he said.

“The Yippie leader revealed that he sent a telegram to Judge Julius Hoffman (also no relation) yesterday afternoon offering the judge $100,000 to play himself in the film. The prosecutor and assistant prosecutor have also been offered money to appear.

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“The picture will be directed by Nick Ray (‘Rebel Without a Cause’), Hoffman (Abbie, that is), and Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman said. It will be filmed this spring in New York on a studio set that will be an exact replica of the Chicago courtroom where the trial took place.”

The implications of such a press release strain the resources of the most speculative mind. The idea of re-enacting a judicial spectacle full of violent outbursts, poisonous prejudices, and the most lurid lapses of decorum would seem to be consistent with Abbie Hoffman’s strategy of making political realities seems as grotesquely contrived and as predictably theatrical as a Punch-and-Judy show. And who is to say that he is ill-advised to treat his predicament with such levity? Sacco and Vanzetti were much more lovable than Abbie Hoffman, but they were judicially crucified just the same. The fact is that Abbie Hoffman and his co-defendants should never have been brought to trial at all on such flimsy evidence and on such nebulous charges. And that they should be denied bail as dangerous criminals at a time when the alleged murderers of the Mississippi civil rights workers were roaming around on their own recognizance indicates the rampant hypocrisy of the American judicial system. But what galls many otherwise sympathetic souls about Hoffman is that he seems determined to exploit every misfortune to the greater glory of his own showbiz personality. Dear Abbie just won’t behave like a professional victim with sad, mournful, hangdog expressions. There is no stoicism, no proletarian nobility, no heroic dignity in this clown of a thousand costumes. There will be no revolutionary songs about Abbie Hoffman, perhaps because Abbie knows enough about history to realize that the subjects of revolutionary songs seldom live long enough to sing them.

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There is a great deal of talk these days about the proper tactics for reform and revolution as if the unarmed and the outnumbered can ever prevail even with magical verbal potions from Havana or Hanoi. More likely, the white middle class radicals will indeed cash in their ideological images for the rich rewards of cultural one-upmanship while the blacks of all classes bear the full brunt of the backlash. It is hard to forget that Abbie Hoffman is at least partly responsible for making Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, and Carswell such household words, and so long as Nixon is allowed to campaign against Abbie Hoffman, so long will the Great Silent Majority continue to swell into terrifyingly Hitlerian hordes. As I have said, Abbie Hoffman doesn’t belong in a courtroom or on the political stump. He is a creature of the theatre, the cinema, the media. He should not be tried by judges, but rather reviewed by the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate. And was it so long ago that Eugene McCarthy’s crusading children cut their hair before canvassing the New Hampshire voters? If anyone has found a better way to change conditions in America except by winning election then let that inspired innovator step forward and explain how. Somehow, I don’t see that the antics of Abbie Hoffman are improving things, but I am talking as a citizen rather than as a critic. As a critic, I am sorry that Abbie Hoffman was unable to get Groucho Marx for the role of Judge Hoffman. With Nicholas Ray at the helm, and Groucho Marx in his judge’s robes, “The Seditious Seven” might well have emerged as a mordant version of “Duck Soup.” But as for changing people’s minds and souls with a movie, forget it! Reliable observers tell me that Southern audiences give the murderous rednecks in “Easy Rider” standing ovations for blowing up the noncomformist bikers. ❖

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1970 Village Voice article by Andrew Sarris about a possible Chicago 7 movie


Who Am I to Doubt the Jedi? ‘Return of the Jedi’ Reviewed

Heaven knows I have fought the good fight against the Jedi — not in the name of evil, of course, but on behalf of a cranky adulthood hobbled by doubts and fears about the human condition and the social contract. The record speaks for itself: I was never stirred by Star Wars; I was never enthralled by The Empire Strikes Back. Thus it is perhaps fitting that Re­turn of the Jedi has arrived on the eve of 1984, and that, like Orwell’s battered hero, I have surrendered to the Force emanating from the myth-making factory of Big Brother George Lucas. The first sign that I was abandoning critical auton­omy in this matter came with my taking my young, intelligent, trend-setting god­son Ross to the ritualistic screening of Return of the Jedi. His critical verdict for which I waited with a pathetic mixture of humility and dependency was clear and lucid: Return of the Jedi was even better than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Now that I have thought about it, I tend to agree. Lucas and his collaborators have managed to sustain the psychic ten­sions in their mythological world through three films over eight years, and by the time the final returns are in from around the world, the gross receipts for Return of the Jedi should exceed the national debt of Nigeria.

There is already some grumbling over this latest joust of the Jedi, to be sure. With the critical crime of sequelitis, one is presumed guilty until proven innovative. One of my cranky adult editors has been heard to complain that Return of the Jedi is cutesier and furrier than its predeces­sors. The Ewoks, a tribe of Teddy bears with traces of both jungle savage and third-world instincts, may seem a bit much at first glance, as if the Star Wars series had been gobbled up by the Mup­pets. Ultimately, however, Return of the Jedi is less callow than Star Wars and less turgid than The Empire Strikes Back. Part of the difference can be attributed to Lucas’s shifting of the directorial reins from anti-genre director Irvin Kershner, who strained to inject complexities into the simplicities of the Star Wars formula for The Empire Strikes Back, to very straight-faced genre director Richard Marquand, who had poured the lushest World War II romanticism through Eye of the Needle, and who has thus managed to blend the Oedipal stirrings of the charac­ters with the moral symmetry of their universe.

What is most remarkable about Re­turn of the Jedi, however, is the canny exploitation of the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have aged eight years since Star Wars, and can thus no longer convincingly impersonate Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in outer space. Rather than resort to the painful younger-than-I-really-am masquerade of Diana Ross in the unlamented The Wiz, Lucas, Kasdan, and Marquand unveil Princess Leia’s legs at long last for a nifty harem routine in the evil lair of a globular intergalactic gangster right out of Lewis Carroll. The spectacle of Princess Leia in the evil clutches of a libidinously mis­shapen monster struck even this gray­beard as more of an erotic shock than any of Nastassja Kinski’s ridiculous fashion mag poses in Exposed. This only goes to demonstrate that whereas Lucas and Company are always one step ahead of Leslie Fiedler, poor James Toback is always one step behind. My aforementioned godson Ross, for example, has grown up on the Star Wars trilogy. All the young fans of Star Wars are now eight years older, and thus are prepared to accept some of the pettier, subimperial forms of grossness to which the Princess Leias in their own midst may be exposed. What is important, however, is that Luke Sky­walker and Han Solo do not make any fuss over what has presumably occurred to Princess Leia. They are still the same people with the same feelings toward each other. Indeed, the revelations of hidden family ties in Return of the Jedi take on the incestuous amplitude of Shake­speare’s late novelistic plays. By the end, however, all the loose ends left dangling in the deliberately open-ended The Empire Strikes Back have been tied so firmly together that it seems impossible for Sky­walker, Solo, and Leia to reemerge in anything but a Proustian recollection of the Jedi trilogy.

It should be noted that Luke Sky­walker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia preexisted Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars. As is not the case with the big-star movies, the iconography of the players was completely subordinated to the mythology of the characters. When kids talked about the movie, they used the names of the charac­ters rather than the actors. By contrast, when pop theoretician Lawrence Alloway asked some years ago what was the name of the character Marilyn Monroe played in Niagara (or in Some Like It Hot or The Misfits, for that matter), his question was clearly rhetorical. One might ask to the same point the names of the characters Robert Redford and Paul Newman played in The Sting. On the other hand, we have the reverse iconography of Rocky and poor Sylvester Stallone, who will probably have to be buried in his boxing trunks after playing a geriatric Rocky IX for the senior citizens circuit. In Return of the Jedi, we are at an in-between phase in the relationship of icon to character. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher have not become big enough stars to transcend their roles, but they are more recognizable presences with the ability to modify the characters they play with behavioral accretions acquired from other films. They seem more com­fortable with each other, and with their increasingly bizarre environments. For the first time I was aware of three dis­tinctive personalities, not the most over­whelming I have ever encountered, to be sure, but likable withal.

This does not mean that I have sur­rendered unconditionally to the Force. Max Ophuls’s Liebelei at the Public The­ater (May 31–June 6) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums at the Film Forum re­main infinitely closer to my notions of grown-up sublimity than Return of the Jedi. Yet I must concede that Lucas and his associates deserve their huge success because they genuinely respect and understand the children in the audience, in themselves, and in all of us. As I watched Ross completely consumed by the absorb­ing spectacle of a son reaching out Christ­like for the mercy of his father, I was reminded of a time almost 46 years ago when my very little brother George screamed in terror at the sight of the evil witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The link jumped into my mind through the eerie resemblances of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor to the animated witch. Lucas has learned his lessons well from old movies. Nonetheless, he has also covered the few vulnerable positions on his ideogrammatic flanks. To the imputations of racist and colonialist overtones in Star Wars, he has responded by bringing Billy Dee Williams aboard again from The Empire Strikes Back, and striking a chic Viet Cong-Sandinista pose with his outgunned but not outfought Teddy Bear brigades. All in all, the com­mercial colossus strikes again, and this time it can claim me as one of its prison­ers, that is, if it even bothers to take prisoners.

As to where the Jedi are going from here, all I can think of is a growing ideo­logical rupture between the collectively­-oriented conscience of One-Worlder Luke Skywalker and the rugged individualism of confirmed Reaganaut Han Solo. Prin­cess Leia would find herself torn between these two divergent ideologies and manifestations of manhood. I’ll tell you what, George. Mail me a little front money so that I can take a leave of absence from the Voice to bat out a treatment. Say a cool million or so. After all, when I surrender, I like to surrender in style. ■

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Cock-Tale Parties on the East Side

Scorpio would never have made the connection if he had not been partying all week up and down the East Side Gold Coast where, as it so happens, “The Last Tango in Paris” and “Deep Throat” are paying in scandalous proximity to each other. First, there was the much maligned Mailer party which Scorpio would not have missed for the world. Why else had Scorpio ventured forth from the comfortable womb of Brooklyn and Queens up to his precarious cliffside perch in Manhattan if not to be jostled at convocations of fame and fashion, nobility, and notoriety?

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But even in the assemblage summoned to pay tribute (literally and figuratively) to the first half-century of Aquarius himself, the spotlight shone most brightly not on Aquarius nor even on the movie stars in attendance, but on Bernardo Bertolucci, the media marvel of the moment. Indeed, only Marlon Brando in his all too solid flesh could have upstaged Bernardo on that night of nights. And so Scorpio began unconsciously to forge a change of associations out of his besotted confrontations with the more lurid elements of his social and professional life. “Oh, you’re a film critic,” one elegant hostess after another would discover with visible delight. “What do you think of ‘Last Tango’ and ‘Deep Throat’?” And after a time, an exasperated Scorpio would counter the recurring question with a question of his own: “What did you think of ‘Last Tango’ and ‘Deep Throat’?” Scorpio was sick and tired and regusted. Why didn’t anyone want to talk about “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” or “Travels With My Aunt”? Scorpio would even have welcomed an occasional digression to “Cries and Whispers.” But no, it was all “Last Tango” and “Deep Throat” and “Last Tango” and “Deep Throat.” Not that Scorpio insisted on talking about movies. He wouldn’t have minded a discussion of Lionel Trilling’s “Sincerity and Authenticity” or the devaluation of the dollar. But both the savants and the stockbrokers seemed obsessed by “Last Tango” and “Deep Throat” not so much for information as for incantation. It was as if something primal or even primeval were lurking under all the locker room banter. Scorpio began to be aware of the stirrings of a collective unconscious in the suddenly liberated East Side soirees. This collective unconscious had very little to do with the art of the cinema, but a great deal to do with the demystification of the penis, and the missing link was a young performer billed in the credits of “Deep Throat” as Harry Reems.

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Who is Harry Reems? To put it as bluntly as possible, he is one of the many men who has put his penis into Linda Lovelace’s massive mouth and down her cavernous throat. This is all essentially that “Deep Throat” is about, and Linda Lovelace has emerged as a campy media celebrity of sorts simply by capitalizing on a kind of Yma Sumac eccentricity to become the Martha Raye of hardcore porn. If “Deep Throat” had remained on the 99-per-cent-male-raincoat circuit, it would have been of scant sociological concern. But thanks to Lindsay’s litigiousness, and the infinite susceptibility of the Manhattan-based media, “Deep Throat” was legitimized as a socio-cultural event, and even the good gray Times (which still cannot bring itself to print a word Marlon Brando enunciates distinctly in “Last Tango in Paris”) took “Deep Throat” seriously enough to commission an article on it for the prestigious Sunday Magazine section. Of course, no one had any way of knowing that two otherwise only marginally related media events would have exploded at almost the same time and in the same general vicinity. And only the most superficially sensational film historians would ever lump together Bernardo Bertolucci and Gerard Damiano (the unsung auteur of “Deep Throat” and the somewhat superior “Meat Ball” in which the aforementioned Harry Reems plays a more central role than that of one of the spear-thrusters in “Deep Throat”). Nonetheless, if the same audiences had not been exposed simultaneously, to the stylish but elliptical eroticism of “Last Tango” and the corny but explicit pornography of “Deep Throat,” there would probably have been fewer murmurs of disappointment about Brando’s relative reticence in “Last Tango.” Relative, that is, to the spectacular sexual gymnastics of the deliberately unheralded Harry Reems. That is to say that if the International Olympic Committee authorizes copulation as an athletic activity at the 1976 Montreal meeting, Harry Reems has to be the winter-book favorite as the U.S. entry not only for the prowess of his penis, but also for his commendably mock-comic modesty about his shockingly superior endowment. Suddenly moviegoers of both sexes have encountered through Reems the visual reality of what up to now has been merely the safely sheathed symbol of Marlon Brando’s pseudo-sensitive stud’s swagger, Burt Reynolds’s coy centerfold swagger, and Norman Mailer’s ballsy literary swagger. It is as if the swordsmen of old were ranked not by their skill in dueling, but rather by the stylishness of their scabbards. What makes Reems completely disconcerting as a potential sex symbol (even to an instant myth-maker like Scorpio) is his superb performance of sexual swordplay without any trace of sexual swagger.

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Here Damiano and Reems must have sensed intuitively that the preponderantly male audience that traditionally patronized porn would have been alienated by any sign of sexual complacency in a well-endowed male. Hence, the dreadful dizzy-doctor-dialect routines to which “Deep Throat” descends for its escape valve “humor.” What Damiano and Reems could not have foreseen was that large numbers of women would find themselves culturally licensed to attend their first public porno spectacle ever. And what absolutely no one could have foreseen was that Brando (and even Mailer) would become topically linked with a relative nonentity like Reems. Scorpio noted ironically that Marlon Brando’s incarnation of Stanley Kowalski was once described as a “walking penis” in Elia Kazan’s published directorial notes on “A Streetcar Named Desire” and that Norman Mailer told a piddling penis joke over the public address system on the occasion of his 50th birthday.

But times had moved on, and the ruthless realism of the motion picture medium suddenly cast into doubt the plastic credentials of that ostentatious machismo which had mesmerized us all for so long. Scorpio was almost relieved that the long suspense was over, and that the revelation of that most vestigial of all appendages of the romantic ego turned out to be such a trifling anticlimax. Officially, Scorpio fervently hoped that the Harry Reems episode would enable men and women to join hands at long last in a shared humanity. But Scorpio would be much less than a male if he did not worry about how much longer the female of the species would continue to smile with generous inscrutability at the disparity between the swagger and the swordplay in the macho male. And can she any longer be kept down with mere rhetoric now that she’s seen Harry Reems? ❖

1973 Village Voice article by Andrew Sarris about the cultural juxtaposition of DEEP THROAT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS


Knicks-Lakers 1970: A Word For Wilt Chamberlain

I am convinced that if Wilt Chamberlain appeared on the floor of Madison Square Garden with a supporting team of four arthritic midgets against a team of NBA All-Stars, the All-Stars would be regarded as the sentimental underdogs, and when the game was over, the sportswriters would blame Chamberlain for clogging the middle so much that the arthritic midgets were unable to drive in for easy lay-ups on the give-and-go, a textbook maneuver that is sometimes good for as many as five showy baskets in a game. But Wilt is not a textbook player. He is a monster with extraordinary size and strength and stamina, a veritable anathema to paunchy sportswriters and commentators who haven’t had anybody to identify with since fat Freddy Scolari stopped throwing up his soft floaters for the Fort Wayne Pistons. Even athletes who have slugged sportswriters have received more favorable press and media coverage than Wilt has. He is never given credit for exceptional performances or generous impulses. He is taken for granted as a brutal fact of nature, rebuked for his presumptions of humanity and sensitivity. “Both teams have played well under adversity,” Chamberlain quipped after the sixth game. “We Americans emphasize winning too much.” The resident humanist in the Post sports department pounced on Wilt for making such a peaceful statement after having voted for Nixon. And so it goes. No blow is too low against Wilt, no herring too red. Every other center who has ever played with any distinction in the pivot has been treated with more consideration.

When Wilt has a good game, he’s a bully. When he has a bad game, he’s a bum. When he takes a great many shots, he’s a prima donna. When he prefers to pass off, he’s supposed to be sulking. If he plays the low post, he keeps his own players from moving freely. If he plays the high post, he’s depriving the team of his strength on the backboard. Lew Alcindor played the low post for three years at UCLA with no one complaining, but Chamberlain has always been criticized by Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and other disinterested observers for not playing the high post as Russell always did with his team of spectacular outside shots. The problem is that the only help Russell’s gifted team-mates needed from Russell were picks whereas Chamberlain’s always needed shovels as well. All in all, Wilt has been such a handicap to all the teams he’s played on that it seems incredible that he has gotten to the seventh game of the finals on so many different occasions, especially when the indisputably great Oscar Robertson considered himself lucky whenever he managed to lead Zinzinnati even as far as the first round of the playoffs.

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Actually, Wilt shouldn’t have been playing at all this year after the kind of knee operation that once incapacitated Elgin Baylor for a full season, and ended permanently his one-on-one capabilities as a superstar. Wilt played only 12 games in the regular season, and never fully regained his mobility and timing in the play-offs. But he wanted to give Los Angeles one last shot at an NBA title, and so he came back in the limited role of stiff-legged back-up for West and Baylor. Even so, no one figured that the Lakers would get by Atlanta, a hard-driving, hard-nosed team that had been manhandling the Knicks all season. I figured the Hawks as the kind of Pier Six brawlers that would bloody the noses of the nice Ethical Culture now-you-shoot-I-shot-10-minutes-ago types on the Knicks. To everyone’s surprise, the Lakers had to battle from a three-to-one deficit against Phoenix to get into the semi-finals against Atlanta, and then bam! Atlanta went down in four straight, and the Los Angeles Lakers, the perennial paper tigers of the NBA play-offs, were poised for their final humiliation.

Meanwhile back in New York, the Knicks scrambled for their lives against the individually talented and collectively disorganized Baltimore Bullets. Earl Monroe, the most obsessively offense-oriented ballplayer since George Yardley, was giving Frazier fits, but the Knicks received some compensation from the extraordinary reluctance of Wes Unseld to take a shot at the basket if there was anyone, friend or foe, within 40 feet to pass off to. In the final game, Unseld embodied the ultimate perversion of unselfishness in basketball into a kind of Floyd Patterson guilt complex about missed shots.

Along came Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, and they went down in five games even though (and no one said because) Alcindor came up with Chamberlain type stats on points scored and rebounds. No one said Alcindor was a bum because his team lost, or that Reed had more heart and soul and talent and character than Alcindor. After all, Alcindor played Reed one-on-one whereas Reed always had help coping with Alcindor. No one seemed to recall that Chamberlain always played Russell one-on-one whereas Russell always had two or three Celtics sagging on Chamberlain. Actually, at several points in the play-offs, Alcindor sulked and panicked in a way I have never seen Chamberlain sulk and panic, but no one seemed to notice, or care. Alcindor was being pampered in the press in a way Chamberlain never was even when he won all the marbles in 1967.

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The stage was set for the ultimate psychodrama of the finals, and there was more suspense than usual. The Lakers were patented losers in the finals, West and Baylor even more so than Chamberlain. As usual with all Chamberlain teams, the Lakers were grossly over-rated. Sure Chamberlain had scored over 25,000 points, Baylor over 20,000, and West over 17,000, but that hardly made them three superstars at the tops or their games, but rather three glorious veterans dragging out their weary flesh for the last big boo. The rest of the Lakers — Erickson, Garrett, Hairston, Counts, Egan down to the virtually unusable dregs — seemed hardly in the same class as the Knick ensemble. It seemed if not a cinch for the Knicks, at least a distinct probability that the old dinosaurs on the Lakers would not be as difficult for the Knicks as were the raw, rugged individualists on the Baltimore Bullets. But who could be sure? The Knicks had never won a championship in the 24 years or their existence, and they had choked up the year before against a veteran band of Celtics out for their last hurrah. The Knick fans and players raved about the greatness or Jerry West, but their real concern was Wilt Chamberlain. (The Celtics always raved about Chamberlain’s team-mates as a means of needling Chamberlain and driving a wedge between him and his team-mates.) West was reportedly bitter that Chamberlain was earning twice as much money even though West was doing the most scoring, and Happy Hairston gave an interview to the ubiquitous Post sports department with the complaint that he wasn’t driving as much now that Chamberlain was clogging up the middle.

The first game went according to schedule. Reed poured in 37 points inside and out, shooting over Chamberlain and driving around him. Chamberlain played a quiet, static game, putting in his regular quota of rebounds without any notice or fuss, hitting a few baskets in between oohs and ahs over Jerry West’s long jump shots. The Lakers looked like a plodding, methodical team without much imagination or even intelligence. West seemed to lack stamina, and getting the ball upcourt seemed too often to be a traumatic experience for the Lakers against the most perfunctory press. Debuscherre covered Baylor like a glove, West was guarded by relays of guards, and Garrett and Erickson were allowed to pop away with impunity but insufficient accuracy. In a word, Los Angeles, Chamberlain included, looked pathetic. Knicks 124-112.

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The second game was closer, and the Knicks were sloppier, and the outside shooting was less accurate. Still, the Lakers only squeaked through by two points, thanks to some defensive heroics by Chamberlain in the last minutes of the game. Shots blocked never appear in the statistics. What did appear was disquieting to both sides. After two games, New York had shot 94 field goals out of 208 attempts, an average of 45 per cent. The Lakers had shot 86 out of 182 attempts, for 47 per cent. The Knicks made 39 out of 63 of their foul shots for 73 per cent, the Lakers 47 out of 71 for 66 per cent. The Knicks led the Lakers in rebounds 107 to 103, assists 53 to 37, personal fouls 60 to 42, and total points 227 to 217. Of course, the first two games had been played in New York, but a pattern was becoming evident. The Knicks were averaging 18 more shots a game than the Lakers because of Lakers turn-overs, and the Knicks were decisively ahead in assists. Chamberlain’s weakness at the foul-line seemed to be a fatal luxury for the Lakers.

The third and fourth games at the Forum were cardiac cases in overtime, and everyone will remember for years to come Jerry West’s 60-foot last-second shot that took the third game to overtime, but the Lakers lost just the same, largely because they got only 86 shots off, opposed to the Knicks’ 109. West took 28 shots, and made only 11. Chamberlain took 10 shots and made seven. Reed made 17 shots out of 30, and Debuscherre 10 out of 20. Bradley was way off at three for 13, Barnett seven for 18, Frazier somewhat better at eight for 17. Baylor had been shooting over 50 per cent, but sloughed off in the third game to four for 13. Erickson and Garrett and Egan and Hairston took up some of the slack, and the Lakers kept it close. In the fourth game, Reed cooled off considerably, Barnett and Debuscherre came on strong, Frazier and Bradley went very cold. For the first and last time in the series, the big three of West, Baylor, and Chamberlain meshed together at top form to pull out an overtime thriller from the Knicks. At this point, it seemed like a close series that would go down to the wire. The momentum seemed to be with the Lakers simply because they hadn’t been blown off the court by the speed, depth, youth, and versatility of the Knicks. Above all, Chamberlain seemed to be getting stronger vis-a-vis- Reed rather than weaker.

Then came the fateful fifth game and the psychodrama that has plagued Wilt Chamberlain all through his career. Eight minutes into the fifth game with Chamberlain decisively out-playing Reed for the first time in the series, Reed suddenly collapsed in a helpless heap as he drove on Chamberlain. The ball rolled out of Reed’s hands, and Chamberlain picked it up, tossed it up court, and then stopped to look at his fallen antagonist. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make merciful. Now Goliath was deprived even of his David. Henceforth, he would be swarmed over by an army of inspired Lilliputians. Suddenly, the Knicks were back in college in the last game of their senior year, and all the form charts went out the window. The adrenaline was flowing freely as it always had in the direction of the puzzled giant Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks swept away a 16 point lead as they managed enough turn-overs to stock a pastry shop. The Lakers seemed befuddled, confused, as if they couldn’t adjust to the absence of a bona fide center against them. From the moment of Reed’s injury, the Lakers were transformed from weary old samurai warriors into toweringly arrogant overlords. Chamberlain dominated the sixth game with 45 points on 20 of 27 shots from the field, and 27 rebounds. West chipped in with 33 points, but most significant of all were the 18 points of Garrett on nine of 11 shots, seven out of seven in the first half alone. Even in this game, the Knicks took 105 shots to the 94 shots of the Laken, and the Knicks shot almost 50 per cent from the field, mostly from the outside. Cazzie Russell finally delivered the sixth player marksmanship he was noted for, and Dave Debuscherre and Nate Bowman did some extraordinary firing of their own. The Knicks were not nearly in such bad shape as they seemed, and they had the invaluable psychological advantage of being treated as one of the 100 neediest cases.

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The seventh game was less a game than an emotional coup d’etat with Willis Reed hobbling on the floor, hitting his first two outside shots, jamming his stiff-legged bulk against Chamberlain to keep him outside, Chamberlain missing his foul shots and fade-aways, the Lakers panicking, turn-overs, Frazier humiliating West with steals and drives, and the crowd going wild. Toward the end of the game, Chamberlain began setting up Baylor for some outside shots to fatten up his points for that old boxscore up in the sky. The Knicks rolled on and on for their first championship in 24 years. The seventh game belonged to Reed emotionally and to Frazier tactically. Frazier virtually destroyed the Lakers single-handed with three-point plays that were supposed to be be exclusive property of Jerry West. The Lakers had not been good enough, but they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did without Chamberlain. To the end, Chamberlain didn’t get the call from the man he voted for. Reed got the call from Nixon, a politician who would rather be on the side of the winner than on the side of a fallen follower even though Chamberlain technically represents Nixon’s beloved Los Angeles and Reed technically represents Nixon’s hated New York.

The first Knick championship team is obviously the best Knick team of all time, but lest we forget, I should like to remind my fellow veterans of those dreary winter evenings in the 69th Regiment Armory that the Joe Lapchick teams of the early ’50s may have been somewhat ahead of their time, and that if they had played under today’s rules, they might have knocked over the Lakers and the Royals in the play-offs. As I recall those hectic days, there was no 24-second rule, and the only way to get the ball from the team that was ahead was to foul, and after each foul in the last two minutes there was a jump ball, and George Mikan or Vern Mikkelsen would always be out-jumping Harry Gallatin or Sweetwater Clifton or Connie Simmons, and there would be another foul, and another jump ball, and the last two minutes would stretch into the most painful infinities. Those were the days of deliberate ball-handling, and double and (on the old Washington Capitols) even triple pivots, and clobber fouling and rabid fans (especially in Syracuse) going so far as to rattle the wire supports when an opponent was shooting a foul. It was a paradise for the big men, which explains the disastrous Dukes-Felix ear when we had 14 feet of nothing out there. Still, Lapchick’s teams were the best-coached teams of their time, and when he left, and the Vince Boryla regime came in, the Knicks became a pitiful joke in New York. Most people would go to the Garden to see the out-of-town stars, to see if Baylor would out-score Yardley, or Arizen would out-score Pettit, or Robertson would out-score West. We would watch Frank Selvy drive and Neil Johnson hook and Cliff Hagan curl in twisting lay-ups, but we always expected the Knicks to lose, and the Boston Celtics to win, but strangely no one ever cried out to break up the Celtics. Once Wilt Chamberlain came into the league, he became the big villain, and the Celtics heroic underdogs. It didn’t matter that Chamberlain out-scored and out-rebounded Russell in their head-to-head confrontations. All that mattered was that Russell was cast as the maestro, and Chamberlain as the monster. And then last year, the NBA championship came down to the seventh game between Los Angeles and Boston with both Russell and Chamberlain having picked up five personal fouls. Russell drove on Chamberlain and threw a jump shot. Chamberlain batted that back too. Did the announcer give Wilt any credit for his defensive plays? No, he said that Russell should drive on Chamberlain a third time to get Chamberlain out of the game. But Russell didn’t have to. Butch Van Breda Kolff, the crybaby champion of coaches, kept Chamberlain on the bench for the last five minutes while the Lakers watched another championship go down the drain by two points. (This year Butch cried some more as he demolished and demoralized the Detroit Pistons, but last year he was treated by sportswriters as the hero with Chamberlain as the villain of the L. A. fiasco.)

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Strange treatment indeed for a player who holds the record for most points scored in a game (100), most points scored in one season (4029), most field goals made in one game (36), most free throws made in one game (28), most rebounds in one game (55), most rebounds in one season (2149), highest scoring average in one season (50.4), highest lifetime scoring, highest lifetime goal percentage (.526) as opposed to West’s .468 and Bill Russell’s .440. He led Bill Russell eight out of 10 years in rebounds, and even led everybody in assists one year. He could have scored many more points if he had not decided to sacrifice his own statistics to help his team. This is a sacrifice Russell with his limited scoring capability never had to consider with the high-scoring Celtics. Why then this persistent hostility to Chamberlain? I think partly because there is something profoundly anti-aesthetic in Chamberlain’s classical economy of movement. Chamberlain was handicapped by coming into basketball after the imposition of anti-big-man rules, widening the three-second zone, the 24-second rule, the elimination of many tip-off situations, etc. If Chamberlain had played in the Mikan era, he would have stuffed Mikan and Mikkelsen in the basket with each hand. He would have been too much. In the Boston Celtic era, he was handicapped by not having enough players on his team he could profitably pass off to. The percentages of his own shooting as opposed to everyone else’s made it mandatory that he be surrounded at all times. Still and all, Chamberlain could manage to wear down all but the most exceptional opponents, and he came so close so often to winning it all that it is idiotic to label him a loser. It was perhaps his destiny to bring out the ultimate in all his opponents, and for that I think it is more fitting that he be thanked rather than condemned. As for Jimmy Brown claiming that Russell always cut Chamberlain down to size, such a comment comes with ill grace from Brown, it being common knowledge that Chamberlain once challenged Brown to a barefoot race and beat the erstwhile Cleveland fullback, who himself was notoriously deficient in “team” spirit particularly when Cleveland quarterbacks were being crunched by opposing linemen and linebackers. With Jimmy Brown as their friend and protector, the Cleveland quarterbacks didn’t need any enemies. Brown prevailed on Russell to abandon basketball for a career in pictures, a fitting outlet for Russell’s raging ego which demands not only that Chamberlain play a secondary role in the scenario of the NBA, but that all the other Boston Celtics be regarded as Russell ‘s untalented spear carriers. (Vide Russell’s incredibly spiteful book on the subject.) Fortunately for us and unfortunately for Russell, the economy of the ghetto could support only one hopelessly expressionless black movie star.

By “winning” more championships, Russell is as much superior to Wilt Chamberlain as Red Ruffing was to Bob Feller. Russell was the key, the strategist, the orchestrator of the Boston team, but he hardly played all the instruments. My all-time All-Star team is Chamberlain at center, Pettit and Baylor at the forwards, West and Robertson at the guards, but I’m not sure that even this team would necessarily beat a team composed of Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Bailey Howell, the Jones boys, Spec Sanders, with Frank Ramsey and Hondo Havlicek sitting on the bench and ready to come roaring into the action.

Don’t get me wrong. The Knicks deserved their championship as the Celtics deserved theirs. But I did feel it was time someone said a word for Wilt.

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Film in Focus: Cruising Into Confusion

CRUISING. Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Friedkin, based on the novel by Gerald Walker. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. Released by United Artists. 

The controversy over Cruising seems to be drifting toward an anticlimax now that the finished movie is available for inspec­tion. My sympathy, as always, tends to be with the filmmaker against the censor, however well-intentioned the latter may be. I think that it is hard enough making a good movie without having a lot of people screaming at you from the side­lines. On the other hand, I cannot deny that much, if not most, filmmaking is superficially exploitational in its depiction of sex and violence. So what? Most people in every field, including my own, are in it at least partly for the money. Consequent­ly, I have no illusions that William Friedkin, Jerry Weintraub, Gerald Walk­er, and Al Pacino undertook this project to feed the starving people of Cambodia. Whether any or all of these individuals are homophobic to any extent I cannot say. Much of the initial controversy seems to have been fueled by what A is supposed to have said at a seminar staged by B, and attended by C.

Some years ago, William Friedkin directed Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band on the screen, and I thought that his direction was reasonably sympathetic. Certain gay activists have attacked the play and the film for finally enshrouding the characters in gloom, morbidity, and self-pity. But if gloom, morbidity, and self-pity in the face of approaching middle age make Friedkin and Crowley antigay, then all of Chekhov’s plays can be at­tacked for being antistraight. It is in the nature of modern characters to be misera­ble at the slightest provocation.

One of the problems from the beginning may have been that the “story” of Cruis­ing was being told from the outside. Gerald Walker’s novel completely lacks either any confessional self-implication or any philosophical overview. The plot is developed almost entirely from the point of view of two characters: (a) John Lynch, an unmarried rookie cop recruited to act as a homosexual decoy to trap a homophobic murderer, and (b) Stuart Richards, the homophobic murderer. Ex­cept for a short prologue and some short plot-catching-up entries from Police Cap­tain Edelson’s Notebook, the novel is divided alternately in chapters headed “John Lynch” and “Stuart Richards.”

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Walker’s novel is in many ways much more gruesome than the movie. Richards not only murders his victims with a long knife but mutilates and dismembers them afterwards. There are a great many phallic references to the knife, and to its symbolic function in the Freudian notion of mater­nal castration. Walker makes a great deal of the fact that Richards murders people of his own physical and facial type, and that Lynch turns out to be a dead ringer for him. In his spare time, Richards is working vaguely on a graduate thesis on Rodgers and Hammerstein at Columbia. His pa­rents have been painfully and traumatically separated since he was a child, and they still bug him, his mother with smothering solicitude, and his father with strangling stinginess. Richards is a discerning movie buff, and two of his favorite movies are Stranger on a Train and The Third Man, both discussed extensive­ly within Richards’s sick mind or their “double” or “Doppelgänger” themes. Walker never mentions Psycho, but there is obviously a great deal of Norman and Mrs. Bates in the Stuart Richards character.

One incongruity in the Richards char­acter in the novel, however, is the frequen­cy and intensity of his heterosexual ac­tivities. Between murders he makes out with women like mad as if he were trying to exorcise some dreaded homosexual temptation. By contrast, the Lynch char­acter seems completely asexual. There is never the slightest intimation of a woman in his life, past or present, and even during his army days he did not indulge in any off-base pick-ups. Indeed, we gradually learn that he used to hang around an off-­post gay bar, and went in for a little gay-­bashing after hours. From a narrative point of view we are thus placed in the hands and minds of two confirmed homophobes, one (Lynch) of the Archie Bunker variety, and one (Richards) completely crackers.

New York’s gay milieu, and for that matter, New York itself, has never seemed so vile, sordid, dispiriting, and degrading. One can almost smell the piss in the doorways, the massive body odors on the steamy city streets. One can feel also the boiling feelings of loneliness, failure, me­diocrity, disgust, and raging self-hatred. What one cannot feel is the author’s in­volvement in this hellish scene. The book is written and structured in a singularly disengaged form. There is not even the sociological hypothesis that kept Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar limp­ing along to its preordained denouement. All that keeps Cruising together as a book is a gory stew of Freudian nightmares, films noirs, and gay guignol.

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The movie has made many drastic changes from the novel. The Richards character has been considerably reduced in size and scope, and the plot tilted from suspense to mystery. Furthermore, he has been transformed from a womanizing homophobe to black-leather hard trade. (Walker’s novel never touches on the kind of s&m scene that exists today.) Richard Cox is very effective in the role, such as it is, but he bears not the slightest re­semblance to Al Pacino as the rookie cop, now named Steve Burns rather than John Lynch. Pacino is now the one with the steady girlfriend, and he is seen banging away at the slightest opportunity. As in the book, the Pacino/Burns character makes friends with a gay playwright, but the plot payoffs are much vaguer in the film. In the novel the rookie cop kills another decoy by mistake, and then mutilates the body to make it look like the work of the homophobic murderer. Stuart Richards then goes berserk in a steam bath and knifes half a dozen male patrons before being killed in self-defense. The gay playwright is then found murdered and mutilated after having oral intercourse, and the horror resumes presumably with a decoy turned Doppelgänger.

Not only does the second decoy disap­pear in the film version; the book’s men­tion of 10 decoys on the case is omitted as well. For all we know, Pacino is the only decoy on the case, and this seems some­what grotesque on a screen across which potential suspects parade by the dozens. In the book Lynch was carefully instructed not to go “all the way” on his heavy dates. With Pacino it is never made clear just how deeply he is becoming involved. The ending is therefore completely muddled in that one cannot be sure that the Pacino decoy has or has not become the murderous Doppelgänger for the Cox/Richards culprit.

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Confusion, however, does not necessar­ily constitute evidence of homophobia. Whereas the novel can be criticized for being facile and unedifying, the movie’s major flaws are dullness and disorganiza­tion. Both Walker and Friedkin seem trapped within a genre in whose logical certitudes they can no longer believe. Hence, a pseudo-realistic open-endedness in both works undermines the mystique of detection and the faith in just and swift punishment. If anything, the movie is even more cynical and despairing than the novel in displaying the omnipresence of evil and corruption. And the police come off even worse than the leather boys in their treatment of street gays. From a political viewpoint, there is in neither the book nor the movie any moral standard against which to compare any lifestyle. The movie can be charged with sensation­alizing the milieu to the extent that it implies some of the victims “are asking for it” with their provocative costumes and overly aggressive come-ons.

In a strange way a project like Cruising seems regressive in terms of what was being done on the subject a decade ago with movies like Midnight Cowboy, Sun­day, Bloody Sunday, and even Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It is as if a less sophisti­cated audience had emerged in the in­terim.

Page 11 of 12.

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Those Wild and Crazy Cult Movies

John Carpenter’s Halloween bids fair to become the cult discovery of 1978. Audiences have been heard screaming at its horrifying climaxes. The initial release, scheduling, and publicity have been catchpenny sensational, as if the distributors were content to sell tickets exclusively to the retard­ed ghouls and zombies they could pick off the streets. Most reviewers have ignored the movie altogether, and yet Tom Allen’s knowledgeable rave in The Voice set off proper dialectical sparks with Archer Winsten’s heartfelt pan in the New York Post. A cult movie, almost by definition, must be both admired and despised, and Halloween has already passed that test.

Indeed, at first glance Allen and Winsten seem to be re­viewing different films, but a closer inspection of their cri­tiques indicates that they are simply responding to different aspects of the same work: Allen, the formalist-mythological; and Winsten, the humanist-realist. Hence, whereas Allen was responding to the fluid camera movements reminiscent of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Winsten was questioning the common sense of the female protagonist in her encounters with the indefatigable bogey man. Only time will tell if Halloween will become a popular classic on the revival and midnight cir­cuits, or merely an esoteric legend more written about than seen. It could go either way, particularly with today’s hap­hazard distribution and exhibition practices. Actually, the commercial fate of many cult candidates depends more on the persistence of exhibitors than the persuasiveness of critics.

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David Rosenbaum described the cult phenomenon very perceptively in the Boston Phoenix of August 19, 1975. After confessing that he himself had paid 10 visits to The Harder They Come, he named such other cult films of the decade as Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, Harold and Maude, The King of Hearts, A Thousand Clowns, Morgan!, “or, for the freakier set,” El Topo, Performance, Night of the Living Dead and Pink Flamingos. Boston has of course been a hotbed for what Rosenbaum describes as “cinematic recidi­vism,” a process by which moviegoers are turned into “movie-followers” by returning to see the same film for the second, third, and nth times. The same process applies to Star Wars and Grease, but these do not qualify as cult films.

As Rosenbaum notes, “a sense of mystery and proprietor­ship is essential to cultishness.” He then excludes from this category the Marx Brothers, Casablanca, Hitchcock films, Citizen Kane and all the popular classics of the screen. These have been too enthusiastically received by both the critics and the general public. By contrast, most cult films have been panned to a fare-thee-well. Rosenbaum proceeds to define the cultishly appealing aspects of the films on his list as irrationality and nonconformity. The “plots” all require a sustained suspension of disbelief, and the almost invariably whimsical protagonists are invariably on the “good” side in the Manichean struggles between life and death, peace and war, love and hate, justice and injustice, equality and ine­quality, naturalness and plasticity, liberation and repression. Other characteristics of the cult scene, according to Rosen­baum, are “low-brow literary seriousness,” rock music, calculating grossness, and the euphoric atmosphere of drug con­sumption.

Rosenbaum concluded his 1975 meditations with a tenta­tive prophecy: “Maybe writers cannot create cult films, but I can’t resist dropping a hint. Claude Lelouch’s And Now My Love was panned by Penelope Gilliatt. It had a modest run in Boston: But last month, on a Tuesday night, it sold out at a dollar theater in Newton. Some of my friends have seen it more than once. I’ve seen it twice. It’s about love.”

Although And Now My Love pops up every now and then at the Carnegie Hall, Bleecker Street, or Thalia circuits, the cult film that has really taken off since Rosenbaum’s article is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I suppose that one would say it is about shifting sexual roles. By now the audience is even bigger news than the film itself. A recent NBC series on the subject of after-midnight screenings of cult movies spent much of its time leering at the bizarre costumes, most into transvestism, of some of the proud repeaters in the audience. What interests me about the interplay between the flick and its followers is the degree to which familiarity has bred contempt among the cognoscenti. They act out the most banal scenes with a distracting, even gross literalism. When they throw real rice at the screen during the wedding scene, the seem to pass very perceptibly from appreciation to aggression. They would not do this if they were one-on-one with the spectacle. It is only through a collective bravado that they usurp the magic of the medium. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is no longer a movie protected by a meditative barrier but merely a pretext for rowdy rites of initiation into some vaguely subversive subculture. How the NBC network nabobs must quiver with titillation to hear little boys and little girls from the audience singing one of the show’s more rous­ing numbers, and stuttering over that terrible term, “trans­sexual.”

In their own way, the after-midnight ceremonies attend­ing many cult movies provide admittance criteria by forcing the participants to make whoopee into the wee hours of the morning. Most movie reviewers are relatively dull nine-to-five types, and even the more mature swingers who can endure all the witty conversation at Elaine’s till the dawn’s ugly light are unlikely to relish the arrested adoles­cent atmosphere of the post-midnight movie mavens. Yet at this point it is possible that The Rocky Horror Picture Show can interest a much wider audience than heretofore, simply because it seems to have struck some rebellious spark in young people. There are certainly enough talented people in it with enough flashy confidence to pass the time for the curi­ous moviegoer as well as the committed movie-follower. But like many of the recent crop of post-midnight cult movies The Rocky Horror Picture Show seems more like a dead end to the relatively serious film historian. It is unlikely to “influ­ence” anything, or to represent any particular stage in the de­velopment of an artist, a theme, a movement, or a genre.

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It is therefore not a cult film in the sense I considered Al­fred Hitchcock’s Psycho a cult film, when I defended it as se­rious art in my very first review in The Voice on August 1, 1960. That I entitled one of my collections of critiques Confessions of a Cultist was intended as a reflection of my closer relation to seminal works like Psycho than to terminal works like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps “cultist” is an overstatement of my critical role. Perhaps today’s “cul­tism” is tomorrow’s classicism. History offers us many confusing clues on the subject.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may or may not have been the first cult movie when it traipsed over to these shores from Germa­ny back in 1921. To the extent that it was a horror flick, Cali­gari fully qualified for cult interest. Also, it was not widely popular, it lacked love interest in the normal sense, and it was not encumbered by big-name Hollywood stars. On the other hand, its expressionist settings reeked of the snobbery of high art, and there is little evidence that the “kids” of the ’20s went wild over this humorlessly Germanic contortion. The critics, as always, were mixed, but the fact that Caligari has been given such a prominent place in the official film his­tories suggests that its academic credentials diminish its claims as a cult item.

The Val Lewton horror classics at RKO in the ’40s, by contrast, have never fully escaped from the “sleeper” catego­ry. And the defiantly perverse tone in the late James Agee’s critical prose championing these low-budget thrillers sug­gests a Times-Square-underground resistance to the critical establishment of that era represented most conspicuously by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times. Indeed, there was a time when movies with titles such as Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and The Body Snatcher were automatically labeled low-grade trash, sight unseen. Many such productions were to be found on the lower half of double-bills, and thus the reverse snobbery of preferring the second feature to the top attraction came into play.

Cultists worshipping in the catacombs of word-of-mouth often exchanged impressions of unexpectedly brilliant or poignant B pictures. But there was relatively little apprecia­tion in print of these underfinanced masterpieces. With any­where from 400 to 600 releases a year jostling reviewers for attention, it was easy to ignore the uncharted realms of schlock. People nowadays may think of the 1933 King Kong as a cult movie, but it happened to open at the Radio City Music Hall — and not at midnight, either. Not that Kong was ever seriously considered for an Oscar. Fun was fun, but officially “good” movies tended to be relatively stuffy and sanctimonious and star-laden.

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One can go back to the very beginnings of cinema to trace the split between flicks that were really enjoyed, and fillums that were merely endorsed. There were pre–World War I rowdies who preferred Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties to Sarah Bernhardt’s noble fretting and strutting on the stage-­bound screen. And soon there were intellectuals to rational­ize the preferences of the rowdies with analyses of Sennett’s kinetic qualities. When Luis Buñuel was writing film criti­cism in the late ’20s, he indicated that he preferred the cine­ma of Buster Keaton to the cinema of Emil Jannings. And this was a daring judgment even for a certified surrealist.

Almost all cultism, be it seminal or terminal, requires an attitude of critical defiance. In embracing the post-midnight outrages of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, its followers im­plicitly or explicitly reject the relative conventionality of most pre-midnight film fare. The big difference between seminal and terminal cultism, however, is that the former tries to de­velop a sense of historical continuity whereas the latter revels in the orgasmic uniqueness of the particular occasion. Semi­nal cultism involves evaluation as well as elucidation. The good must still be sifted from the bad in the realm of aesthet­ics. Terminal cultism eventually degenerates into mindlessly uncritical incantation as the distance diminishes between the dozing sensibility of the viewer and the illusory inevitability of the spectacle. The terminal cultist stops thinking in the name of today’s total absorption.

The critical cultivation of cult movies through the ’50s and ’60s spawned such categorical labels as pop, camp, noir, schlock, and sleaze. Unlike the condemnatory term “kitsch,” which assumed a high-art plateau from which one looked down on mass culture, the newer labels could be positive, negative or neutral. More important, there was an assumption in these labels that the subject was being studied in depth. To talk about schlock you had to immerse yourself in the output of the fleapits. And if you sat through a hundred or a thousand schlock movies you would eventually discover a few schlock classics. The dominant trend of film criticism and film scholarship since the late ’50s has been more ency­clopedic than exclusionary. The sociological critics who ruled the roost from the ’20s through the mid-’50s acknowledged the existence of a great many movies as relevant to their stud­ies. But once the cinesociologists had extrapolated the perti­nent social messages from their material they were no longer interested in most of these movies as art objects. They certainly did not counsel preservation of prints on any massive scale. Instead, they provided visions of an ideologically cor­rect cinema of the future. In the meantime, the archives could preserve Potemkin, and Mother, and The Bicycle Thief, and Grand Illusion, and Citizen Kane, and a Chaplin here and a Keaton there, and maybe a Griffith and a Dreyer, and not too much else.

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Within the past quarter-century, however, a new genera­tion of film critics have translated their mania for movies into very elaborate analytical methodologies. The Cahiers group were of course the most famous practitioners of the art of critical alchemy in finding gold in what had been designated by the culture at large as dross. But they were merely the most conspicuous of the revisionists, and not the sole au­thorities on revisionist criticism. What happened in one country after another was the discovery of pleasurable movie­going experiences that could not be accommodated within any existing critical doctrine. “Trash,” snorted the cultural establishment at such cult movies as The Searchers, Touch of Evil, Vertigo and Rio Bravo. Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, and Hawks no longer require a very strenuous defense against the short-sighted snobbery of the trash-criers. The battle-lines have shifted from the relatively respectable realms of westerns, policiers and psychological suspense thrillers to what were once considered the pestholes of poverty row. Roger Corman has been widely acclaimed as the Val Lewton of the ’60s and ’70s.

In the November-December issue of Film Comment, Todd McCarthy writes appreciatively and perceptively of Michael Miller for his direction of Jackson County Jail and Outside Chance, and Robin Wood continues in that same issue his en­thusiastic exegesis of Larry Cohen’s It Lives Again. These are obviously not the instances of the kind of rationalized cronyism one encounters in the slick pages of The New York­er, but, rather, genuinely cultish responses to completely unexpected moviegoing epiphanies. Like many of us, McCarthy and Wood discovered so much more in Jackson County Jail and It Lives Again than they had been led to ex­pect that they began tracking down the hitherto obscure careers of Michael Miller and Larry Cohen. This search led into the dark regions of hardcore porn (Miller’s Teen-Age Fantasies) and giddy socio-sexual satire (Cohen’s Bone). Such venturesome scholarship keeps us all on our toes by demon­strating that we never really know where talent is going to pop up next, and that we must keep an open mind at every screening. Too often, reviewers seem to be hypnotized by the sheer size of the hype in determining what is “important.” Cultish curiosity is therefore the best antidote to the indus­try’s front-running smugness.

Not that all cult favorites necessarily deserve to become classics. Quite the contrary, cultism must be debated as rig­orously as classicism. Still, it is a good rule of thumb for any­one seriously interested in the medium to check out another person’s enthusiasms. Don’t wait for a critical consensus to form around a film before you deign to see it. Rush off on your own, and maybe you can start your own cult. There is something magical and miraculous about movie-making that confounds all our expectations, positive and negative. And these are exciting times for movie cultists in that the lifting of censorship makes it possible for low-budget productions to be extraordinarily audacious at least on the level of content. The higher-than-ever costs of big-deal productions tend to make them more conservative and more conformist in the treatment of reality. The raucous sensationalism and sca­brousness of most schlock and sleaze is not an adequate substitute for the timidity of the “big pictures,” but at the very least there is a margin of dissent in toppling the taboos of “commercial” movie-making.

Like most of my co-religionists, I became a cultist when I found that the conventional criticism of my time failed to ad­dress itself to my profoundest pleasures. There was even a time when I was dismissed at screening rooms as an Ingmar Bergman freak. This was the period of Illicit Interlude, Moni­ka, The Naked Night, The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Sum­mer Night, but Bosley Crowther had not yet given his benediction to Bergman, and that was all that mattered to the publicists around town. And who is to say that part of my pleasure in Bergman was not unabashedly erotic, and that Maj-Britt Nilsson, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Eva Dahlbeck were not amatory axioms of the cinema? In­deed, I saw my first Bergman movies in houses now dedicated exclusively to hardcore pornography. There is now and always has been much more to Bergman than the artiness now associated with his graduation to the Bloomingdale’s Belt. To the cultist a movie is a movie is a movie, and one never knows in what soil a cinematic flower will bloom.

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The 25 Most Memorable Cult Films

The Big Heat. Fritz Lang, 1953. Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in a Wagnerian policier, complete with scalding coffee.

Bigger Than Life. Nicholas Ray, 1956. James Mason takes cortisone and terrorizes his family with his megalomania.

Black Angel. Roy William Neill, 1946. Peter Lorre supplies the ratty elegance while Dan Duryea sacrifices himself to save June Vincent’s husband from the electric chair.

Detour. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945. Tom Neal picks up Ann Savage, a tough, vicious hitchhiker who makes him rue the day.

Forbidden Planet. Fred M. Wilcox, 1956. Remake of the Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon as a Freudian Prospero trying to fight off his Calibanish unconscious.

Forty Guns. Samuel Fuller, 1957. Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in the most phallic western ever made.

Gun Crazy. Joseph H. Lewis, 1949. The precursor of Bon­nie and Clyde, with Peggy Cummins and John Dall.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Don Siegel, 1956. A classic fable of paranoia, in which Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter try to escape an alien race of pods who absorb people and look like you and me.

I Walked With a Zombie. Jacques Tourneur, 1943. Frances Dee does indeed walk with a zombie to a calyp­so beat in this most surprisingly graceful of all the Val Lewton horror films.

Kiss Me Deadly. Robert Aldrich, 1955. Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer follows the Spillane ethos to a new destination: atomic Armageddon.

Night of the Living Dead. George A. Romero, 1968. The very clumsiness of the acting adds to the horror of this cannibalistic zombie adventure.

Once Upon a Time in the West. Serge Leone, 1969. Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, and Jason Robards meet their destinies in an elaborately orchestrated gunfight.

The Pitfall. Andre de Toth, 1948. Dick Powell sends Li­zabeth Scott up the river and tries to repair his marriage to Jane Wyatt in one of the sorriest endings in Holly­wood history.

Ride the High Country. Sam Peckinpah, 1962. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott fight their last gunfight against punks who represent the new West.

Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks, 1959. John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan become axioms for the French critics in this almost absurdist western which might have been titled, “Waiting for the Marshal.”

Ruby Gentry. King Vidor, 1953. Jennifer Jones and Charleston Heston are caught in the wild sensuality of sin and redemption.

The Searchers. John Ford, 1956. A new generation of di­rectors has been inspired by John Wayne’s vengeful quest for a lost niece in Comanche country.

Seven Men From Now. Budd Boetticher, 1956. Randolph Scott and a hanging tree in an allegorical western that moved Andre Bazin to admiration.

The Shanghai Gesture. Joseph Von Sternberg, 1941. Gene Tierney and Victor Mature exude the laid-back decadence of the drug scene long before Hollywood could acknowledge it.

Silver Lode. Allan Dwan, 1954. An astonishing anti­-McCarthyism western with a confrontation between John Payne and Dan Duryea.

Summer Storm. Douglas Sirk, 1944. George Sanders and Linda Darnell drifting to their destruction in the best Hollywood adaptation of a Chekhov story.

Touch of Evil. Orson Welles, 1958. Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, and Marlene Dietrich are meshed in an atmosphere larger than life: corruption.

The Uninvited. Lewis Allen, 1944. The Casablanca of Hollywood ghost movies, with Gail Russell as intended victim.

Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958. James Stewart enraptured by Kim Novak in a definitive study of romantic obsession.

Wicked Woman. Russell Rouse, 1954. My own all-time schlock favorite, particularly when pig-like Percy Hel­ton is running his slobbering lips up the arm of wonder­fully lurid Beverly Michaels.


Films: ‘Easy Rider’ Reviewed

July 3, 1969

When the Cannes Film Festival hailed Easy Rider as a poetic and perceptive vision of American life, I didn’t exactly hold my breath with anticipation. Motorcycles, materialism, misanthropy, and murder have long served as adequate cinematic correlatives of American life for Europeans, and never more so than in this year of law and order on Hamburger Hill. That the American Dream has come to resemble a quickie production out of American-International does not in and of itself transform every vavoom on the screen into a meaningful statement.

As it turns out, however, Easy Rider displays an assortment of excellences that lifts it above the run and ruck of its genre. First and foremost is the sterling performance of Jack Nicholson as George Hanson, a refreshingly civilized creature of Southern Comfort and interplanetary fantasies. Easy Rider comes to life with Nicholson’s first hung-over entrance in a Deep South dungeon.

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We have been traversing the open road with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their defiantly nonconformist bikes, and we have been treated to some wide-angle distortions of drug-trafficking, some cut-rate spirituality in a hippie commune, some cryptic conversation on the sanctity of living off the soil, and an endless array of roadside traveling shots lyrically photographed by Laszlo Kovacs. Nothing too extreme, mind you, just little bits and pieces of sociological petit point interspersed with musical strands fashioned by Steppenwolf, the Byrds, the Band, the Holy Modal Rounders, Fraternity of Man, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Little Eva, the Electric Prunes, the Electric Flag, an American Music Band, and Roger McGuinn from compositions by Hoyt Axton, Mars Bonfire, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jaime Robbie Robertson, Antonia Duren, Elliot Ingber and Larry Wagner, Jack Keller, David Axelrod, Mike Bloomfield, Bob Dylan, and Roger McGuinn or Richard Goldstein where art thou with thy Pop Eye and Folk and Rock Ear. With all the rousingly rhythmic revelry and splendiferously scenic motorcycling, Easy Rider comes to resemble a perpetual pre-credit sequence, but reasonably pleasant withal.

Unfortunately, there is something depressingly deja vu about the moralistic view of America from a motorcycle. And after about the 20th man-cool mumble, the equation of anti-conformity with anti-conversation seems too facile by far. Also, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper leave a great deal to be desired as allegedly affecting figures of alienation, Fonda being irritatingly inert as ever and Hopper annoyingly mannered behind the bushy mustache of a character performance. Along the way, Warren Finnerty’s fecund farmer and Luke Askew’s hirsute hitchhiker play off to advantage against the self-righteous taciturnity of Fonda and Hopper, but not until Jack Nicholson enters the picture with his drawling delivery of good lines can we get involved beyond the level of lethargic lyricism. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern are credited with the script, and Dennis Hopper with the direction, but see Easy Rider for Nicholson’s performance, easily the best of the year so far, and leave the LSD trips and such to the collectors of mod mannerisms.

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I don’t want to draw any aesthetically conservative point from Nicholson’s pre-eminence in Easy Rider. It is too easy to say that camera tricks and dazzling cuts are no substitute for full-bodied characterizations. Too easy and too misleading. We are simply too close to the popular cinema of today to read it correctly. If American movies seem today too eclectic, too derivative, and too mannered, so did they seem back in the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, and the ’50s. The nouvelle vague tricks and Bergman-Fellini-Antonioni mannerisms are no more voguish today than the UFA German Expressionist and Soviet montage tricks were in the late ’20s and early ’30s. But out of all the mimicry of earlier times emerged very personal styles, and there is no reason to believe that the same thing will not happen again and again. Hence, beware of all generalizations including this one, perhaps especially this one, because it is just remotely possible that after all the false cries of doom, the cinema might actually be racing to the creative standstill so long predicted for it. But I doubt it. It is not the medium that is most likely to get old, tired, and cynical, but its aging metaphysically confused critics. This particular critic has never felt younger in his life.


The Voice, O.J. Simpson, and Robert Blake Go to the Oscars

For as long as the Oscars have dominated the pop culture discourse, there have been those who have bemoaned the ceremony as too long, too slow, too commercial, too superficial. The 1976 Academy Awards — where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won for Best Picture, Director (Milos Forman), Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Actor (Jack Nicholson) —  were no exception, at least as far as the Voice’s Andrew Sarris was concerned.

“Every year people stop me in the street to make me explain why the Academy show has to be so boring and so vulgar,” wrote Sarris, in the April 12, 1976, issue of the Voice. “And yet the following year we look at this boring and vulgar ceremony in even greater numbers. Perhaps, we should stop trying to figure out how to make the Oscarcasts less odious, and meditate instead on our inability to avert our gaze from this most stupefying of all spectacles.”

But looking back from the distance of four-plus decades, the ceremony was crazier than a cuckoo’s nest; after all, this was the year that two actual murderers served as presenters:

O.J. Simpson and…

Robert Blake.

The weirdness didn’t stop there, but none of it could soften Sarris’s hard heart. “As long as there are about 20 to 25 statuettes to hand out, and the names of 100-some-odd nominees to read off, Academy night will always seem interminable,” he wrote. “On the whole, I was bored, and I shall be bored next year and the year after and the year after that to the year 2000.” — The Voice Archives

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