Flashes in the Pan

Aristotle was wrong, you know.
In Poetics, his small book of dramatic criticism, he says that the action of a good tragedy elapses in a straightforward progression, without digression or counterpointing action, usually on the same day, in the same spot. More than two thousand years of theatrical practice and experimentation have plainly demonstrated that there are innumerable other ways to make a good play--so why continue to read that absurd old Greek?

T.S. Eliot asserted that Hamlet was "certainly an artistic failure." Compared to what? His own The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, perhaps? Or Murder in the Cathedral?

In view of Ari's datedness and Eliot's nerve, why do they continue to be respected? Why, for that matter, does Mark Twain's witheringly hilarious attack on the novels of James Fenimore Cooper continue to be published when Cooper's books are still beloved?

The same type of questions arise from reading The Critics Were Wrong: Misguided Movie Reviews and Film Criticism Gone Awry (Citadel, $12.95), a would-be damning collection of quotes from eccentrically opinionated film reviewers, many of them critical heavyweights.

The short answer to questions about such critics' value, of course, is that, however much they may dissent from popular or critical consensus, the opinions of Aristotle, Eliot and Twain, as well as of many writers quoted in The Critics Were Wrong, have merit and are compellingly presented. In fact, I'll dare say that long after The Critics Were Wrong, compiled by writers/actors (according to their PR bios) Ardis Sillick and Michael McCormick, is out of print, the work of many of the fine, thoroughly wrongheaded film critics quoted in the book will still be rolling off the presses.

But that is critical prophecy, and perhaps I should be careful. By far the best historic passages in The Critics Were Wrong are those by critics who dismiss soon-to-be-major stars and directors, or lob personal insults at established talents. It's worth a few smirks to read how hopeless are Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta and Jean-Luc Godard and Lana Turner and Steven Spielberg and Vanessa Redgrave's plans for long careers, and how "any picture with Nicolas Cage in it is off to a shaky start" (Stanley Kauffman, reviewing Raising Arizona in the New Republic).

The lesson for the critic from these chapters is that earnest predictions about an artist's future failure (or success) are foolish--the public may insist on disagreeing with you, and even if you're right about an artist now, he or she may improve (or decline). In any case, an artist's future career fortunes are unlikely to be very relevant to the work you're supposed to be reviewing. Critics who make predictions deserve what they get, but even more offensive are those who make personal insults, especially of physicality.

The most notable insult-lobber is the loathsome John Simon, who is quoted holding forth at length, over the course of several reviews, on how "arrogantly, exultantly ugly" Barbra Streisand is. But others follow him closely, like Stanley Kauffman, who maligns Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver: "Scorsese reveals her well-kept secret: her unfortunate legs." That, ungallant even if it were true, also betrays rather insanely high standards for legs.

Apart from such amusements and outrages, The Critics Were Wrong merely raises the question: except for factual error, erroneous prophecy or gratuitous unkindness, can a critic ever really be wrong? Sillick and McCormick serve up the quotes as if they compose some sort of dishy expose that critical judgment is often at odds with popular success. But a reviewer can only be "wrong" or "misguided" if his or her review is seen as a consumer report. And even then, it can never be wrong--or right--to all. Indeed, the popularity of our two most high-profile film critics, Gene and Rog, is based on their disagreements.

Besides, the compilers are rather generous when it comes to deeming their cinematic sacred cows. They quote David Edelstein of the Village Voice on Louis Malle's 1987 Au Revoir, Les Enfants--"[Malle] nailed the big scene, I'll give him that. The pity is that imagination deserted him, and that he couldn't build a freer, more daring, less hackneyed film around it." Seems to me a perfectly acute summary of that film's flaws and merits.

Of course to another viewer/reader, this judgment would seem a disgraceful underrating, and a third would consider it overgenerous. The three of us could sit and talk about it passionately over dinner after the film, and have a great time. That's what good film criticism can be like--the journalistic equivalent of movie talk with a provocative friend. But what The Critics Were Wrong seems to be saying is that critics are to be mocked when their opinions don't conform to those of the general public.

If movie criticism has any real use at all, it's not as a buyer's guide--it's simply as good reading, on a subject that many people care more than passingly about. All of the exciting American film critics--Pauline Kael, James Agee, Kauffman, Andrew Sarris, J. Hoberman, Penelope Gilliat--are exciting precisely because their judgments so often seem skewed, cranky, off-the-wall, and yet somehow, when backed up by good writing and inventive rhetoric, so sensible that they can shake up our own perceptions of what we've seen. All of the above are represented amply in the pages of The Critics Were Wrong--indeed, to have a quote appear in this book could be regarded as a movie critic's badge of honor.

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