To the Editor:
As co-editor of Film 67/68 I feel duty-bound to defend not the book but the majority of its contributors from the attack launched in your pages by William S. Pechter [“Books in Review,” January].
The main line of his criticism seems to be that most of us are the prisoners of the magazines for which we write and are therefore not free to express our own opinions. I suppose in one sense that is true. No magazine—not even the little cult film quarterlies—hires reviewers who are in fundamental disagreement with the editors. But the implication that the critics who write for such journals as Commonweal, Newsweek, the New Yorker, Saturday Review, the New Republic, and—dare I say it?—Life are so lacking in personality and the spirit of individuality that the differences among them can be dismissed as “differences less of men than of magazines” is, to put it plainly, stupid and insensate. It is as though I said that Mr. Pechter’s review was about what you’d expect of “the Hodder Fellow in film criticism at Princeton.” Much as I admire the impeccability, the sheer damned purity of people who are fellows in criticism rather than practicing critics, that would be unfair, wouldn’t it? My point is merely that our faults are our own, not our magazines’!
Now, obviously, I know nothing about the details of my colleagues’ relationships with the magazines that employ them, but I do know them all to be people of integrity and of considerable, not to say exasperating, independence. Sure, all of us have defects as critics, but these stem from personal, not institutional, flaws.
Here, if I may, I should like to speak personally. I have been writing for Life for four years now. In that time no one has attempted to tell me what to review or what not to review. Nor has anyone attempted more than normal editing, of exactly the sort one hopes to receive from any intelligently-managed magazine—of the sort, indeed, that one gets from COMMENTARY, for example. Very often, this has improved my copy and when it has not, in my opinion, I have always been encouraged to defend my prose (my opinions are never challenged) in the kind of open, friendly dialogue with the editors that is all too rare in editorial rooms these days.
Mr. Pechter finds himself amazed that Life would print Pauline Kael’s review of Before the Revolution and heartened to find it printing a piece of mine about Bunuel. He gratuitously and erroneously suspects that Miss Kael did not write again for Life because her editor disapproved of the film itself, which is simply untrue. (Miss Kael is a distance runner, a brilliant one, and the very short space Life has available for film reviews is better suited to sprinters like me.) As for that heartening Bunuel piece, I admit that it didn’t say much that is “new” about Bunuel, but Bunuel is a remarkably consistent artist and it is difficult to say much that is novel about his work. I would like to point out, however, that this is one of three reviews of Bunuel works that Life has printed in the five years since it started its review section, all of which praised him—a pretty good record for what Mr. Pechter thinks of as an establishment magazine. . . .
Finally, a word about my “facile deployment” of clichés about the existential condition of modern man. I plead guilty to using the familiar phrases about alienation and so on. However, that they are familiar does not render them untrue—rather the opposite in my opinion. But let that pass. Mr. Pechter accuses me of “final reconciliation in sunny optimism” with this condition, implying that somehow Life forced me to this leap of faith. But the phrase to which he objects occurs not in a piece I wrote for the magazine, but in one that I wrote for Film 67/68. So it is my own, for better or worse. I am sorry that down at Princeton these days an expression of hope that things might improve instead of worsening is not to be countenanced. But since Mr. Pechter makes a big point of the critic’s need for “openness” I should think he might have extended it to this little, undoubtedly vain, expression of mine. Indeed, while we are on the subject of “openness” one might wonder just how much of that quality a reviewer can bring to an anthology of works composed largely by writers for whom the reviewer confesses “a previously developed aversion.” . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . William S. Pechter says Film 67/68 is an “appalling book” but goes on to praise at least some of the work of a number of the volume’s contributors, including Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Wilfrid Sheed, and even Stanley Kauffmann. How, then, can the volume be appalling? Surely, Mr. Pechter did not expect a grab-bag collection of pieces from sources as diverse as Time and Esquire to be mostly, or even largely, first-rate. . . .
But what is most “appalling” in Pechter’s review is his attempt to shatter for all time the authority, the very legitimacy of Stanley Kauffmann, who seems to many of us the finest and most discerning film critic we have. . . . He characterizes Kauffmann’s writing as “liberal, reasonable, earnest, sober, dull,” and one wonders what Mr. Pechter is getting at. Would he have Kauffmann be less than earnest, unreasonable rather than measured in his responses? And can he be serious in asserting that Kauffmann is dull? Those of us who have been reading Kauffmann regularly over a period of years would hardly agree. . . . Nowhere, of course, does Pechter deign to tell us in which particulars Kauffmann is deficient, nor from which fundamental failures of intelligence these deficiencies spring. Why doesn’t Mr. Pechter examine, briefly if necessary, one film that Kauffmann has bungled in his criticism, and make some effort to show how this single example is representative of Kauffmann’s work?
Surely many of us have been dissatisfied with numerous pieces Kauffmann has written over the years. . . . I have even had occasion to take issue in several of my own articles with what I have considered Kauffmann’s misinterpretation of basic issues in a number of films, including Bergman’s Persona. But my respect for Kauffmann’s clarity of thought and fundamental intelligence is undiminished, as is my conviction of his humaneness and integrity. . . .
Flushing, New York
Mr. Pechter writes:
If I wrote like a “Hodder Fellow in film criticism,” I should doubtless have something to be ashamed of, and, even so, I am well aware it is a rather silly thing to be. In fact, however, I am not an academic but was nominated for the fellowship, which involves residence at Princeton, on the basis of my published film criticism, and, as it happens, I have been publishing film criticism since 1960, four years before Mr. Schickel discovered the field and entered it (unless one wants to count productions like The Stars of 1962) with his enfeebled rehash, The Movies, which, incidentally, I came to with an open mind; of such stuff are “previously developed aversions” made.
It is true that I have written in magazines such as the Kenyon Review, Tulane Drama Review, the London Magazine, etc., which Mr. Schickel would probably consider worthy of ridicule; he has, of course, every right to, and I’ve no doubt that, in many respects, they are. Of course, being a film “critic” for Time-Life which co-owns MGM has its funny side as well. But Mr. Schickel somewhat mistakes my point about men and magazines, which, in any case, was applied in my review to only certain of his book’s contributors, and rather unfairly, I now think in retrospect, to Philip T. Hartung and Commonweal. (One thing I certainly wasn’t suggesting is that critics for the big magazines must be bad because of the size of their audience as one might unfairly put down Saul Bellow for writing a best seller or Miles Davis for being popular.) No doubt, Mr. Schickel believes he is a free man at Life, and probably he is (my remark about Pauline Kael and Before the Revolution was intended as sarcasm); the people who thrive in such circumstances are precisely those who are in no fundamental conflict with the prevailing values, and all the better for their psychic well-being if they fancy themselves as boring from within. . . . But I was not accusing Mr. Schickel of taking orders or even of that familiar modern phenomenon of self-censorship, something of which he is apparently unaware. It is clear that for anyone who, uncoerced, spins out phrases like “lustily lively” and “your viewing pleasure,” as well as those quoted in my review and the many others which aren’t, a clash between man and magazine has been rendered unnecessary. . . .
Mr. Schickel acts as though I had nothing but censure for every film critic but myself, when I would have thought my review makes plain my appreciation of Andrew Sarris and extreme admiration for Pauline Kael. And Mr. Boyers seems to see some contradiction between my favorable remarks on Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris (he should reread what I said about Wilfrid Sheed) and my finding Film 67/68 “appalling,” which escapes me. If the book is to be taken as only “a grabbag collection” without expectations that it be “mostly or even largely first-rate,” then perhaps it can be justified, if at all, as a documentary record of the fatuity of most of what passes for film criticism. Given, however, the rather less modest claims which the book makes for itself and the impoverishment of its actual contents, appalling seems to me a fairly generous estimate unless, like Mr. Boyers, one is easily pleased.
It is true that for reasons stated in my piece I didn’t engage in any extended disagreement with Stanley Kauffmann over particular films, though I did mention his sensationally egregious review of The Graduate and several other instances from which such disagreement might proceed. It could as easily proceed from just about any issue of the New Republic, the most recent one as I write informing us of Pierrot le Fou (a film I don’t happen to like) that “the whole film . . . is a series of strategems to keep Godard himself from falling asleep.” No doubt, there are those for whom such remarks are an instance of first-class critical wit, and I think they are likely to be those who conceive of Kauffmann—as I don’t—in terms of “authority” and “legitimacy.”
. . . For those who are interested in specific disagreements with Kauffmann in detail, I recommend Pauline Kael in I Lost it at the Movies. My charge against Kauffmann was a more general one—my charge is opportunism—but our opportunism, not his. He had the good luck to begin reviewing films for an intellectually respectable journal at a time when increasing numbers in the intellectual community were becoming aware of films as an artistic medium which could no longer be ignored. For them, Kauffman was there to act as perfect middleman, cicerone on the Grand Tour, the voice of benign authority. For all of the intellectually lazy who wished nevertheless to be in the know, Kauffmann was clearly a bargain, but it is the consumer and not the product which chiefly ought to bear the blame. For his audience, though he has described Renoir as essentially a one-film director (and ascribed to him films he never made), liked He Who Must Die, dismissed Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player, called West Side Story the best musical film ever made, found the films of Satyajit Ray lacking export value, praised The Island, put down Bunuel, etc., etc., Kauffmann still has his “authority.” Contrary to Mr. Boyers, I did not “attempt to shatter for all time” this sacred trust, and, given the fealty of Kauffmann’s audience as one sees it in Mr. Boyers, I’m sure I couldn’t even if I tried.
In David Bazelon’s article, “A Writer Between Generations” [February], the sentence on page 48 which begins, “A technological advance over lignite called ‘napalm’ ” should have read: “A technological advance over thermite called ‘napalm.’ ”