When Critics Mattered
Kael, Ebert, and ’70s Film
Mar 1, 2012
19 Min read time
The years from the late 1960s through the middle of the 1970s were remarkable ones for American movies. In the words of critic David Thompson, it was “the decade when movies mattered.”
The Great Movies III
by Roger Ebert
University of Chicago Press, $18 (paper)
Life Itself: A Memoir
by Roger Ebert
Grand Central Publishing, $27.99 (cloth)
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
by Brian Kellow
Viking, $27.95 (cloth)
The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
by Sanford Schwartz, Ed.
The Library of America, $40 (cloth)
The years from the late 1960s through the middle of the 1970s were remarkable ones for American movies. In the words of critic David Thompson, it was “the decade when movies mattered.”
With the collapse of the draconian censorship regime that had imposed a strict moral code on the content of films, the decline of the studio system, and economic and demographic changes in both the industry and its audience, a window of opportunity opened for a new type of commercial film. At the same time, the content of these movies was inevitably shaped by the social and political upheavals of the era: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the Shakespearean saga of the Nixon presidency.
These films, filmmakers, and, implicitly, their audiences, were dubbed the “New Hollywood.” New to reflect their relative youth, but also as a nod to the foundational influence of the New European cinemas of the 1950s and 1960s; Hollywood because the makers of these personal, ambitious, arty films nevertheless hoped to return a fair profit. During this golden age, a night at the movies was still an evening’s entertainment, but it was also an invitation to discuss important works of art that were shaped by, and in dialogue with, the political, social, and philosophical issues of their times.
The New Hollywood was a cinema of moral ambiguity. The notorious Production Code Authority, in ruins by the close of 1966, had insisted on movies about right and wrong, with right winning in the end. By contrast, in the world portrayed by the “’70s film” (and in tune with the tenor of the times) choices are not always easy and obvious (Klute, The King of Marvin Gardens), authorities and institutions are compromised (Medium Cool, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and, finally, the “hero” rarely wins (Chinatown, Night Moves). Individually ’70s films offer character-driven explorations of troubled, imperfect protagonists and complex interpersonal relationships, with no obvious solutions or clean resolutions proffered (or expected). Collectively they reflect a thriving and identifiable film culture—movies that “don’t supply reassuring smiles or self-righteous messages,” but share “a new openminded interest in examining American experience,” as the critic Pauline Kael put it at the time. “Our filmmakers seem to be on a quest—looking to understand what has been shaping our lives.”
These were movies to talk about, and fight about, and accordingly it was also the decade when the critics mattered. An ambitious cohort of film critics, shaped by new sensibilities, expectations, and experiences, led a tumultuous public debate about the movies, their meaning, and their relationship with society. Of these critics, the argumentative, bohemian Kael was the most influential. A singular voice in the Berkeley film scene during the 1950s, Kael made her way East supported by a Guggenheim fellowship and then landed a job at McCall’s, from which she was fired soon after dismissing The Sound of Music (1965) as “a sugarcoated lie.” A brief stint at The New Republic also ended unhappily, but in 1968 she would land, and remain, at The New Yorker, having established her reputation with an elaborate, breathtaking defense of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). That review fills out twenty exhilarating pages of her new Selected Writings, and it remains well worth reading (and re-reading). Kael wrote in a distinct, jazz-inflected style, offering a personal, emotional reaction to what she saw on the screen. Her reviews were steeped in the rich context of film history, but, in contrast to the stentorian lectures of many authoritative critics, Kael told you what she felt, and if she didn’t feel it, it wasn’t worth seeing. (Her first collection of reviews was called I Lost it at the Movies.)
Bonnie and Clyde, in what would become a watershed moment in the emergence of the New Hollywood, was originally dismissed and buried by establishment critics as a brutal, immoral farce. With its outlaw heroes, rule-breaking portrayal of bloody violence, and counter-culture sensibilities, Bonnie and Clyde was particularly offensive to critics such as Bosley Crowther, the enormously influential guardian of good taste at the New York Times, who famously trashed the film in print not once but three times. Kael, in dissent, opened her review with a question: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” For Kael, “Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about.” It is a film that “upsets people,” even viewers who pride themselves in maintaining an emotional distance from what they see on the screen. But “Bonnie and Clyde, by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back in death.”
Kael told you what she felt, and if she didn’t feel it, it wasn’t worth seeing.
Kael was out front in these battles, but, of course, she was not alone—a couple of dozen critics were elbowing their way to the intellectual table, eager for a piece of the action, determined to discuss movies that had something to say. A month ahead of Kael’s broadside, one of them, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, declared Bonnie and Clyde “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.” Despite its depression-era setting, the film, he explained, was “aimed squarely and unforgivingly at the time we are living in.” Ebert, born just ahead of the baby boom, lived through that remarkable post-war trajectory: coming of age as a Midwestern teenager in the straight-laced 1950s, still young enough in his twenties to dive into the social upheavals of the 1960s. Ebert was no revolutionary and did not write as if he aspired to be at the vanguard of some new movement. He was a wayward English-lit grad student who wandered into a newspaper gig. But his perspective was inherently informed by the distinct attitudes and curiosities of that post-war generation. Ebert, who in 1975 was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, would also become a household name as cohost of a popular, long-running movie-review television show alongside rival Chicago film critic Gene Siskel.
In the socially charged ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers and audiences understood that their movies were inescapably political gambits—even if they claimed not to be—and critics were quick to pounce. Kael labeled Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) “the first American film that is a fascist piece of art.” Ebert wasn’t opposed to dropping the f-bomb either, declaring, “If anybody is writing a book about the rise of fascism in America, they ought to have a look at Dirty Harry.” Pushing into the decade, Nixon and Watergate loomed increasingly large. Kael was especially fast on the draw, calling Save the Tiger (1973), which could be read as sympathetic allegory of the president’s troubles, “a moral hustle.” In a 1973 column she observes, “The corruption that Watergate has come to stand for can be seen as the culmination of what American movies have been saying for almost a decade.” Even more than Vietnam, Nixon haunted the ’70s film, perhaps especially in movies absent any overt politics. Of The Conversation (1974), Ebert concludes, “The Watergate crew seems, for the most part, to have had no notion that what they were doing was objectively wrong. Harry wants to have no notion. But he does, and it destroys him.”
The New Hollywood didn’t make it into the 1980s, overtaken by basic shifts in society and the industry’s business model. Great movies would still be made, always, but the film culture was changing, fundamentally. The writing was on the wall: at the 1977 Academy Awards, Rocky, the story of a simple, loveable underdog who triumphs against all odds, won best picture, beating four New Hollywood movies, including Network and Taxi Driver. What critic Stanley Kauffmann in 1966 had dubbed “The Film Generation,” those young people with a “hunger for film . . . the enthusiasm, the appetite, the avidity for film,” was fading from the scene. Within two decades, Kauffman would write “After the Film Generation,” which traced “the decline of this sensibility.”
Of a kind with the conservative backlash and the Reagan Revolution, movie audiences seemed less interested in challenging, uncertain dramas, lining up instead for feel-good blockbusters, which resurrected the old Hollywood mentality of good guys and bad guys and happy endings. Mega-hits such as Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) offered fables that pitted noble heroes against ultimate, implacable evils. For action movies such as these, worldwide grosses were counted in the hundreds of millions, and the stories were kept simple. The blockbuster model was also a terrible blow to the critical enterprise. With movies opening everywhere at once, aggressively marketed and highly dependent on the first few weeks of box-office receipts, filmmakers and viewers relied little on the opinions and influence of serious critics. The relationship between the movies and their audiences was changing.
Kael retired in 1991; she lived for ten more years. Ebert continues today as arguably the most influential film critic in the country. Things are different now. Contemporary American culture, more attentive to celebrity lifestyles and box office receipts, is less hospitable to serious conversation about movies. But we can still look back. As four new books attest, Kael and Ebert were very much at the center of things during those years when the movies, and what people said about them, mattered. The publication of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael coincides with the appearance of the first proper biography of her; Ebert has just written his memoirs, on the heels of The Great Movies III—a collection of his recent essays.
Age of Movies, edited with a fine if hagiographic introduction by Kael’s friend, the writer Sanford Schwartz, is billed as “Selected,” which, given that about ten thick anthologies of Kael’s writings have been published, is an understandable necessity. Sitting down with the 750-page book, I found it a pleasure to hear the distinct rhythm of her voice. Looking especially at the earliest publication dates, one is also reminded of her gender. A single mother who struggled for decades to scrape together just enough to get by, and who clashed famously with editors and publishers, invariably men, Kael lived her feminism even as she assiduously kept more than an arm’s length from the movement. But in this volume, her earthy, personal, provocative, and unapologetic prose, a style that predated the celebrated “new journalism,” reminds you that she was a trailblazer.
In the socially charged '60s and '70s, filmmakers and audiences understood that their movies were political gambits.
Age of Movies collects the majority of her most famous essays and reviews, though there are some obvious omissions. The absence of “Raising Kane,” her sloppy, irresponsible, not-easily-forgiven hatchet job of Orson Welles is welcome. Perhaps as penance, Schwartz includes instead “Orson Welles: There Ain’t No Way,” a 1967 essay from The New Republic that dubs Welles “the one great creative force in American Films in our time.” More puzzling is the absence of a 1963 Film Quarterly essay, “Circles and Squares,” her attack on auteur theory, or at least that version of it championed by the critic Andrew Sarris. But most of the essentials are there, including 1969’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” where Kael comes closest to defining her mission as a critic: an approach to movies (not film) that is learned, literate, smart, and above all, in love with the movies—but never academic. She wants a movie to excite, to surprise, to astonish, but not to lecture: “Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose.”
Two other standout essays, “Movies, the Desperate Art” and “Why are the Movies so Bad? Or, the Numbers,” remain essential and take on additional meaning when seen together in this collection. “Desperate Art,” from 1956, surveys the dismal state of cinematic affairs in the 1950s, when American films went “big” (think CinemaScope) as a reaction to the threat of television. In an observation that would anticipate what made the modestly scaled films of the New Hollywood special, Kael explained, “The more expensive the picture, the bigger the audience it must draw, and the fewer risks it can take.” “Why are the Movies so Bad,” from 1980, serves as a melancholy bookend, attributing the end of the golden age of the ’70s to “studios [that] have discovered how to take the risk out of movie making.”
But the enduring soul of the collection is found in the reviews: long-form entries that engage movies in depth and capture their emotional intensity. The most famous are present and accounted for, especially her out-on-a-limb exuberant raves. She calls Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie—a fleeting, almost diaphanous vision.” That review includes, presciently, concerns about McCabe’s commercial prospects and about studio support for “movies that are delicate and understated and searching—movies that don’t resolve all the feelings they touch, that don’t aim at leaving us satisfied.” In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Kael sees an advance in what the form might be capable of. Bertolucci and leading man Marlon Brando achieve “realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen” as “Brando’s Paul carries a yoke of masculine pride and aggression across his broad back.” Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets (1973) is “a triumph of personal filmmaking” with “its own unsettling, episodic rhythm and a high-charged emotional range that is dizzyingly sensual.” Assessing the magnetism of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy, Kael observes: “When you’re growing up, if you know someone crazy-daring and half-admirable (and maybe most of us do), you don’t wonder how the beautiful nut got that way; he seems to spring up full-blown and whirling, and you watch the fireworks and feel crummily cautious in your sanity.”
Age of Movies also includes many less celebrated gems. Though commonly chastised for playing favorites, Kael was nevertheless willing to heap praise on those artists she usually rejected. Her review of non-favorite Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968)—“a flawless work and a masterly vision”—catches what many critics missed: “Bergman has put us in the position of the Vietnamese and all those occupied peoples we have seen being interrogated and punished and frightened until they can no longer tell friend from enemy, extermination from liberation.” Admittedly, Kael did have her favorites. But more often than not she was right about them, as with her effusive and enormously controversial review of Altman’s Nashville (1975), based on a rough cut of the film. “Nashville arrives at a time when America is congratulating itself for having got rid of the bad guys who were pulling the wool over people’s eyes,” Kael explains. “The movie says that it isn’t only the politicians who live the big lie—the big lie is something we’re all capable of.” It was another great ’70s film that had something to say—and Kael was on top of it: “When you get caught up in his way of seeing, you no longer anticipate what’s coming, because Altman doesn’t deliver what years of moviegoing have led you to expect.”
Kael’s glory days overlap, not coincidentally, with the New Hollywood era, and those writings properly fill the bulk of this book’s rich middle. But Schwartz stays with Kael through the end. Age of Movies hints at the trajectory of Kael’s career—by the mid-1980s the pickings are slim, though her skills are undiminished in a review of Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), an underappreciated Vietnam War film by another of her favorite directors—but the book keeps its distance, which is what makes Brian Kellow’s biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, a welcome companion piece.
Kellow, features editor at Opera News and author, most recently, of a biography of Ethel Merman, offers a well-researched overview of Kael’s life. Especially worthwhile is his coverage of the early years. Kael was 48 when she landed the job at the New Yorker in 1968, and for the next ten years, she was the most influential movie critic during one of the most exciting times in American film history. But much about that Kael is known; A Life in the Dark devotes its first third to the younger Kael, and these are the most valuable chapters, which fill in the backstory of decades filled with struggles and setbacks. Kael’s philandering, charismatic father was wiped out in the depression. In the ’40s she hitchhiked across the country with a boyfriend, hoping to find fortune and success as a writer in New York City. Kellow sees hints of Kael’s father in the reckless directors she would later champion, and the difficult New York interlude as her first clash with elitist, establishment cultural gatekeepers. The ’50s were better but still threadbare and arduous. By mid-decade Kael had a popular, if unpaid, perch discussing movies on public radio, and she was known for her must-read notes written for Berkeley’s art house theater, the Cinema Guild.
In its mid-section the book is occasionally repetitive and at times reduced to stringing together series of movies and reviews, but they are admittedly irresistible movies and important reviews. A Life in the Dark also lives up to the hinted entendre of its title, reviewing unflinchingly some of the less flattering aspects of the life, such as the Kane fiasco, Kael’s occasionally awkward relationships with her acolytes, and the sensitive question of whether she discouraged her daughter from pursuing a more independent path. Given her role as a critic, there was also the inevitable issue of her open fraternization with filmmakers whose work she championed, an issue gently raised by Ebert in his memoirs (“perhaps it wasn’t a flaw but only a fact, to be taken into account”).
A Life in the Dark moves toward a somewhat gloomy finish. This may be the necessary consequence of Kael’s dispiriting third act, which found her increasingly frail (she suffered from Parkinson’s disease) and discouraged by the state of the American movie scene. But Kellow might have pushed even harder on the crucial years from 1977 to 1979, when Kael clearly sensed the closing of the golden age. The 1977 essay “Where We Are Now,” expresses her pessimism about the future of the movies: “If you consider going out to a movie and open your newspaper to the movie pages, that mess you see is a sign of the societal changes that are making going-to-the movies obsolete.” These concerns are elaborated in 1978’s “Fear of Movies,” and soon after the publication of that essay, Kael, pushing 60, accepted Warren Beatty’s offer to come to Hollywood as a producer-consultant, with the lure of fixing the movies before they went wrong. The disastrous experiment lasted about five months, and Kael limped back to New York, where she had to fight to get her old job back. She did, but it was never the same.
Ebert, 70 this summer, has also faced some pretty big challenges in the “American Icon” stage of his career. A series of surgeries, complications, and setbacks left him, from 2006, physically weakened and unable to speak, eat, or drink. But his story is inspirational, and his memoirs, Life Itself, are a pleasure to read. A book about much more than the movies, it is a story of people, places, youth, and travel. His portraits from before the revolution—of impossibly Rockwellesque 1950s small-town Americana—are tellingly detailed and a reminder of the remarkable changes witnessed in but one lifetime. More than a third of the book takes place before March 1967, when Ebert became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and multiple diversions follow—Ebert sees himself as a newspaperman even more than a critic. And the last part of the book is more about life itself than the movies, with spellbinding interludes about his physical condition and personal philosophy.
Ebert realizes that, as a critic, he is no longer at the center of things.
If there is one thing that disappoints, it is that Life Itself is not a book of sustained narrative. It is a collection of essays knitted together in loose chronological and thematic order. With 55 chapters averaging about eight pages each (some of them revised blog entries), it lacks the sustained and searching scrutiny that fewer, fuller chapters could have provided. It is more a book of beautiful moments than of rich history. Siskel, for instance, appears prominently in three chapters, yet one is left feeling that Ebert tells great stories, but not always the story.
On the other hand, Ebert is a master essayist, and it is the form that plays to his greatest strengths as a writer and as a student of film. Those skills are what make his The Great Movies III a movie lover’s delight. The Great Movies concept—a series of biweekly Sun-Times essays about older films—is Ebert’s reaction to his awareness that as a critic, he is no longer at the center of things, a prominent voice in an imagined Socratic assembly, interrogating the grand contributions of a golden age.
With one hundred entries, it is not a book to summarize succinctly—winnowing down by favorite movies and favorite essays can get you down to fifty, and from there, working hard, maybe twenty. Not surprisingly, some of the greats from the ’70s make for standout entries, but the book is as wide-ranging as film history itself. Yet the magic of each essay is the same—Ebert slips inside the skin of a movie and comes back to reveal what it is really about. “Mitchum and Douglas think the story involves a contest of wills between them, when in fact they’re both the instruments of corrupt women,” he writes of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). Reading Ebert on Jean-Pierre Melville’s resistance masterpiece Army of Shadows (1969), it suddenly seems obvious that “rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism.” And of Jacques Rivette’s mysterious La Belle Noiseuse (1991) and the inscrutable motives of Jane Birkin’s character: “She believes in her husband’s greatness. That explains all the unanswered questions in this film, and there are some big ones.” These are the pleasures of a Great Movies essay—to spend time with a film that is an old friend, and hear an interpretation of its content that reveals new contours of its character. The entries are ordered alphabetically, but readers should save for last Ebert’s essay on The Dead (1987)—John Huston’s final effort, which he directed from a wheelchair, tethered to an oxygen tank—and appreciate anew “a film as quiet and forgiving as the falling snow.”
As he explains in the introduction to the first Great Movies volume, he pitched the idea of the column to his editor “at a time when new Hollywood product seemed at a low ebb (it has ebbed lower) and many younger filmgoers seemed to have little sense of the cinema’s past.” The format also allows Ebert to shed the constraints of the “review.” In writing a new essay about an old classic, his job isn’t to tell us if the movie is good, but to craft an argument for why the movie is great. And each essay presents an opportunity to continue the precious conversation about the movies that mattered.
March 01, 2012
19 Min read time