Over the weekend I read an essay on J.D. Salinger which Janet Malcom published in the New York Review of Books back in that now lost and fabled time, June of 2001. Though I still incline toward the negative conclusions arrived at by his contemporary critics, it was an admirable defense of America’s best known, best selling literary recluse (only Thomas Pynchon . . . who once was rumored to actually be Salinger himself . . . approaches his mystique, if not his sales figures). She argues that the immensely long and overconfident non-stories he trotted out in his last decade as a publishing writer represented something approaching the full weight of Salinger’s literary musculature; that they were far more inventive and original works than critics of the day could perceive. In essence, she was saying that Alfred Kazin and John Updike and Mary McCarthy (among others) were struck by a sudden contagion of critical blindness. It is, as I say, a position one could easily dispute. Very easily.
In any event, I was reading this essay when I came across the following; from which I quote:
Like the contemporary criticism of Olympia, for example, which jeered at Manet for his crude indecency, or that of War and Peace, which condescended to Tolstoy for the inept “shapelessness” of the novel, it [criticism of Salinger in the early 1960s] now seems magnificently misguided. However, as T.J. Clark and Gary Saul Morson have shown in their respective exemplary studies of Manet and Tolstoy, negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work’s originality. The “mistakes” and “excesses” that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power.
Maybe. In the realm of film criticism there are no analogs for, say, Alfred Kazin in LitCrit; there have only been shadows, no more. The reasons for this are too varied (and frankly, if you think about it, too obvious) to enumerate in full. Suffice it to say for now that cinema is a medium of such unprecedented volatility that those entrusted with evaluating its piebald and many-hued issue are forced, almost as a mechanism of sheer survival, to fall back on one warhorse gimmick or another from which the reader, poor excluded slob, can then divine what narrowly-cast critical sensibility is ascendent. For a critic it’s either that or surrender to the irrational nature of the art itself and acknowledge a baseline cynicism in the critical enterprise. Whether it’s mass-market critics tailoring reviews to their own, abysmally low opinion of the audience, or the merry band of Stepford Cinephiles across the globe knocking great viscous balls of reflexive, often identically-worded CriticSpeak back and forth in the most incestuous game of linguistic volley ball imaginable, the imperatives of film criticism, as a craft, will undoubtedly forever reside as far from the true nature of motion pictures as its practitioners can get away with. It literally has to be that way. After all, what film critic on earth . . . good or bad; esteemed or despised . . . wants to voluntarily bring the ballgame to a screeching halt by admitting that words, in the end, will never get the job done?
That said, if FilmCrit is indeed a sweet racket . . . and I don’t say that it isn’t; at least for those who do it well . . . it does, however, invite certain impulses that can mis-shape the perspective of otherwise unsuspecting readers. I’m speaking, in the main, of the potential for abuse in retrospective analysis; a widely-practiced critical phenomenon (for those of you playing along at home) wherein a work that once suffered foul injustice at the hands of its contemprary jurists is re-heard by a subsequent generation of critics; picked up, dusted off, resurrected; very often reborn into a higher form.
In other words, exactly what Janet Malcom tried to do for poor old J.D. Salinger back in 2001. She’s correct that the blinkered estimates of yesteryear can assist a later critic in gauging just how poorly (or not) this work or that work was treated, and for every such rescue mission in literary criticism, I daresay there must be a dozen or more in the arena of cinema. It’s a worthy and valuable function, on its face, but the possibility that it could easily get out of hand occurred to me the other night when I had opportunity to revisit Otto Preminger’s panavision trainwreck, Skidoo, and reflect on my own critical attitudes (such as they were) when first I bore witness to it.
I saw Skidoo for the first time on television (where else) sometime in the mid 1980s. I’ll confess to being somewhat eager beforehand. You see, I was already a confirmed fanatic when it came to its director. More crucially, I was still careening heedlessly through the as-yet-undiscovered (by me) niches and alleyways and hidey-holes of cinema; fully intoxicated by that post-adolescent auteurist fever-dream where something . . . anything . . . could always be found that would redeem even the most maudit of maudit works.
I was familiar with Skidoo‘s generally foul reputation, of course . . . I doubt if I had ever come across a positive word said in its behalf . . . but I couldn’t have cared less. In those days I was trying to make my way as a ‘working’ film critic (translation: trying to land a paying gig); casting perspective where I could on the medium’s discharges, old and new. So I had, you could say, a sense of mission inside of my heart. No, it wasn’t morbid curiosity driving me (as it would be today); it wasn’t even a basic interest in seeing a heretofore unseen film by a director I admired extravagantly. If anything I was, in that moment, possessed by an overwhelming desire to redress a critical wrong and ride to the rescue of a work that just . . . had to be . . . far more worthy than everyone said it was. The very fact that critics of its time dismissed the thing with nothing more than a few paragraphs and a shudder only gave this determination to welcome it and clasp it to my critical bosom a greater urgency than I had anticipated.
Turns out that, for whatever reason, I wasn’t up to the task. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t yet seen other Preminger failures of the late 60s/early 70s and didn’t really know what to expect (it must be said that a film like Skidoo comes as a considerable shock when you only know this man’s work, as I did then, from relative masterworks such as The Cardinal, Anatomy of a Murder, Daisy Kenyon; Bunny Lake is Missing, even); perhaps the abominable Pan ‘n’ Scan transfer only served to magnify flaws that would not have been quite so obvious if I was seeing it in its correct aspect ratio; perhaps my capacity for willful self-delusion simply wasn’t as vast as the enterprise of film criticism requires; perhaps it was all three. Fact is, I still don’t know why my iron-clad determination to admire Skidoo at any cost suddenly vanished midway into the opening sequence. I only know that it did.
I won’t say that I was apalled enough to switch it off, or that I could have written it off as just a prosaically bad movie; even as a lesser work in the Preminger canon. The minor films of his that I’d seen by then . . . Saint Joan and (I think) The Moon is Blue . . . had a degree of logic to their failings. They harmonized well with the kind of filmmaker I already believed Otto Preminger to be. But Skidoo, with its mystifying blend of capering farce and counter-cultural lip service, its batallion of Hollywood veterans throwing their dignity onto the ash heap, en masse, was . . . something else, and I watched it unfold in all its garish, mind-breaking wrongness with an undesignated species of fascination. I couldn’t begin to tell if it was some kind of failed satire, or a misguided joke on the audience; though I knew one thing almost instantly: Skidoo was a stillborn child inseminated by shrieking miscalculations; the kind that I, card-carrying Teenage Auteurist, was simply not accustomed to attributing to favored directors. It stood tall in the psychedelic saddle as a depraved and unexpected challenge to my fundamental conception of Otto Preminger as an artist, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it at all.
I watched it again two nights ago, after the mighty Turner Classic Movies last January hauled it out of the formless void where it had been dangling on a hook for a couple of decades and slapped it onto their weekly TCM Underground presentation. Still Pan ‘n’ Scan (I’m told that TCM wouldn’t plunk down the coin for a widescreen edition, thereby foregoing what would at least have been a premiere run in that format), but of far better image quality than washed-out bootlegs and my dim recollection. I won’t say that my fundamental opinion of it shifted to any degree, but it puzzled and absorbed me nevertheless, far more than it had twenty-odd years ago, and the realization stole upon me as I watched it that I could, if I so desired (and I practically did at that moment), unpack my adjectives and write something positive . . . if not, perhaps, glowing with praise . . . about it in this blog. The unchecked, impulsive half of my brain was aware that Skidoo was still, by any rational measure, absolutely lousy; but the other half, my supposedly rational and sober critical faculty, was once again prepared to dive in like an overeager lifeguard and breathe a good name into the lungs of this godawful movie that it has otherwise never enjoyed. The feeling passed after a few hours, but it was replaced by a disturbing recognition of my own cynicism. Not the cynicism of coming here to more or less deliberately inflate a reaction that was at best highly ambiguous into a misleading form of exuberance (though there was that). I mean the impulse pf my misspent youth that got me itching to rush to this movie’s defense before I’d actually seen it.
Oh, you may say I was being idealistic then; indulging a weakness endemic to youth and all that rhythm. But not only do I find it questionable in my case, I have a wisp of suspicion that almost every such resurrection in FilmCrit (planned or executed; wrong or righteous) is accompanied by a like degree of calculation. For anyone in this racket with so much as an ounce of ambition . . . and I plead guilty to harboring more than one ounce . . . will discover that idealism and cynicism are so fatally joined, so inexorably intertwined, that after awhile you can’t tell one condition from the other; what’s more, you don’t even want to. It won’t get you anywhere. Latter-day cinephiles and movie reviewers (and I number myself in this concord) should, it can be argued, preserve their morale and remain in perpetual flight from the reality of what they’re doing. But when our enthusiasm, our true and everlasting love for cinema becomes so omnivorous, so all-embracing that even crap like Skidoo starts looking good to us, then I sometimes wonder if it might not be time to honor the medium at the center of our souls and find another, slightly less honorable preoccupation.