In 1977, after two decades of ardent and involved devotion to the cinema, I attended a screening of the original Star Wars movie drawn there against all my best instincts by the phenomena of the huge adult crowds lining up at the box office to see this putative kiddie flick, and by the largely positive reviews from certain film reviewers who ordinarily would dismiss such a movie almost out of hand. An hour after it began, I left the movie theater mid-show, dismayed and angered, and with but two exceptions (Schindler's List, and the showing of a print of the newly restored Lawrence of Arabia), haven't entered a movie theater since.And with the single and singular exception of the aforementioned 2005 experience, so has it remained to this day. There is today an ancillary experience: We cannot today find so much as a single movie reviewer (forget about critic), online or in print, in whose writings we can place any aesthetic trust, or who writes with the panache, eloquence, grace, and intelligence of film reviewers and critics of days past. Gone are the likes of Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Bosley Crowther, and John Simon. (Mr. Simon is still alive but no longer regularly reviews movies in print. He does, however, have an online blog — Uncensored John Simon — but which blog is, unhappily, not devoted to reviewing anything.) Much of the blame for the debased quality of today's critical writing on movies can be laid squarely at the feet of TV's Dynamic Duo, the late Gene Siskel and his late partner in crime Roger Ebert, the modern-day originators of the thumbs-up-thumbs-down school of movie reviewing. One can readily understand the appeal of such reviews both for reviewers and their audiences. They're relatively easy and quick to write, and for their audiences, infinitely easier to assimilate and understand than are the deeper-thought-out, more deeply examined and researched criticism of the best movie reviewers and critics of yesteryear. But that's hardly a justification of the practice. Merely an attempt at a partial explanation, superficial and true though it may be. Oh!, where have all today's true movie reviewers and critics gone? Are they all hibernating, awaiting a more propitious cultural time to make their reappearance? Or is it the case that the species has simply outlived its appeal and usefulness and consequently gone irretrievably extinct? O tempora! O mores!
The new [Met] Ring, I loved it, in the Met and in HD. The sets were fantastic, and elastic. The singing was very good as well. So why exactly are so many against it?To which we replied:
Because it ended up being a Robert Lepage spectacular (actually, a spectacular that failed as a spectacular; but that's quite beside the point) with Wagner's music serving as sound track and Wagner's drama given only lip service. Mr. Lepage's focus seemed to be on what he could get Le Machine to do that would result in some visually arresting effect for its own sake at any particular moment rather than on how the capabilities of the contraption could best be exploited to support, express, or frame the drama moment by moment from work's beginning to end. It's a tail-wagging-the-dog approach that's all but guaranteed to result in shallow (at least attempted) coups de théâtre pretty much every time, precisely as it did in this production.After a repeat viewing of the Met's HD film of the tetralogy (via our HD DVR recordings of the HD PBS telecasts), we saw nothing to alter that opinion. For our comments on each of the music-dramas as telecast, you might want to consult the following S&F entries: Das Rheingold
While I take your point (and it's a reasonable one), saying we ought to accept the lesser of two evils with some measure of gratitude is hardly an answer to the problem. The Lepage staging of the Ring is in every way unacceptable, especially for a company with the prestige and stature of the Met. And what makes it unacceptable is NOT fixable except by doing away with it altogether as it's flawed conceptually. The Lepage staging centrally features Le Machine as the looming, hulking, impotently conspicuous star of the show as it could not otherwise be, and that's utterly and fundamentally perverse. And when I say the staging must be done away with altogether, I mean doing away with both Lepage and his humongous, dead-weight, ill-conceived, Frankenstein contraption to which contraption he's devoted entirely. The ONLY way such a contraption could justify itself is if it were capable of becoming THE ENTIRE STAGE ITSELF, perfectly plastic and malleable, and by so doing become invisible or transparent as a contraption. That's nowhere in the cards with Le Machine, either technically or practically; ergo, it has to go, along with its creator who cares infinitely more for it than for Wagner's great work which work both he and it were supposed to serve.And so it goes.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these [professional] critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. [...] And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at. Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.RTWT here.
THATCHER (gesturing to the headline): "Is that really your idea of how to run a newspaper?" KANE: "I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of."That was precisely Orson Welles's position vis-à-vis filmmaking when in 1939, at age twenty-four, he arrived in Hollywood as a filmmaker for the first time knowing virtually nothing about filmmaking, lured there by RKO's new studio head George J. Schaefer who in order to secure Welles's services had signed Welles to a contract to make one film a year; a contract that gave Welles unheard of control over the finished product including the film's final cut. And what was Welles's very first film shot a mere one year later? Why, Citizen Kane, of course, as today just about every moviegoer worldwide knows. For Welles to have created Citizen Kane right out of the box, so to speak, is fully the equivalent of, say, a Richard Wagner creating Tristan und Isolde the very first time he ever put pen to manuscript paper. Quite impossible, of course, but create Citizen Kane is exactly what Welles managed to do, and without so much as breaking a sweat creatively (there were other matters connected with the project that caused Welles to sweat copiously, but those matters are outside our concerns here). Over the past almost three-quarters of a century since its premiere, so much has been written about Citizen Kane (and about Welles himself, for that matter) that there really seems little one can say that hasn't already been said. We do, however, want to say a word or ten concerning several ancient but only recently read critical pieces on Citizen Kane by critics now deceased whose writings we respected in the past (although rarely agreed with), among them The New Yorker's Pauline Kael and The New York Times's Bosley Crowther, which critical pieces viewed Citizen Kane's Rosebud with some contempt calling it a gimmick and a rather hokey one at that. Some twenty years after the fact of the film, Welles himself, although for reasons that must be held somewhat suspect, declared Rosebud a bit embarrassing and confessed it to indeed be merely a hokey gimmick; "dollar-book Freud," as Welles wryly put it. Well, Rosebud most certainly and most clearly is Freudian. But "dollar-book Freud" and merely a hokey gimmick? We think not. In 1941, the year of the film's release, the great Jorge Luis Borges had a few unkind words to say about Citizen Kane famously calling it, among other not so good things, "a labyrinth without a center." Clearly, Borges didn't much care for Rosebud either and so dismissed it entirely from consideration. How do we know that even though we've never read Borges's piece in full? Because "a labyrinth without a center" is exactly what Citizen Kane would be absent Rosebud, for Rosebud is precisely the center of the labyrinth that is Citizen Kane. The film (and the final draft of the screenplay) was structured that way from Day One. There's nothing the least gimmicky or "dollar-book Freud" about Rosebud as it's handled in Citizen Kane although in less skilled hands it could very easily have become both. One has only to consider the film's great coda to appreciate the fact. That coda is dramatically, logically, emotionally, and psychologically quite perfect and no mere O. Henry twist; an exemplar of Welles's idea that,
You could write all the ideas of all the movies, mine included, on the head of a pin. It’s not a form in which ideas are very fecund. It’s a form that may grip you or take you into a world or involve you emotionally — but ideas are not the subject of films. [...] That is why, I think, my films are theatrical, and strongly stated, because I can’t believe that anybody won’t fall asleep unless they are. [...] For myself, unless a film is hallucinatory, unless it becomes that kind of an experience, it doesn’t come alive.If one ever doubted our contention that Welles as a filmmaker was Wagnerian to the very core, an idea long held and frequently expressed by us in the past, the above should convince him otherwise. Not only is Rosebud the center of the labyrinth that is Citizen Kane, it provides as well the proper final and central piece of the enigmatic jigsaw puzzle that is Charles Foster Kane himself whose life and actions as revealed in Citizen Kane are perfectly consistent, psychoanalytically speaking, with a man who as a young child was abandoned by a beloved mother (abandoned being how a young child interprets the separation no matter the actual reason), feels himself to blame for the loss of her love (which is how abandonment is interpreted by a young child no matter the actual reason), represses (in the strict Freudian sense) the psychic trauma, and is then driven unconsciously the rest of his life to attempt to wash away his imagined but undefined sin and win back his mother's love while at the same time never allowing himself to become deeply attached to a woman for fear of again being abandoned although he has no conscious inkling whatsoever of any of this or of what's driving it. More like leather-bound, gold-leaf-edged Freud we'd say and no gimmick, hokey or otherwise. Of course, if one is inclined to dismiss all things Freudian just on general principles and is looking instead for social or political or spiritual or existential relevance, or social or political or spiritual or existential moral point or the like, then one will surely find Rosebud to be a hokey gimmick and "dollar-book Freud," and Citizen Kane to be something less than the consummate work of art others such as ourself consider it to be. For instance, the great filmmaker Ingmar Bergman — as a filmmaker, as Mozartian to the core as Welles was Wagnerian — was no fan of Citizen Kane or of Orson Welles.
For me [Orson Welles] is just a hoax. [Citizen Kane is] empty. [Citizen Kane is] not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of, is the critics’ darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie has is absolutely unbelievable! [...] In my eyes [Orson Welles is] an infinitely overrated filmmaker.Oh dear. Well, what can one say. It may be Bergman's entirely honest assessment or, in part at least, payback for Welles once declaring (a declaration with which we are not in the least in sympathy) that,
I don’t condemn that very northern, very Protestant world of artists like [Ingmar] Bergman; it’s just not where I live. The Sweden I like to visit is a lot of fun. But Bergman’s Sweden always reminds me of something Henry James said about Ibsen’s Norway — that it was full of "the odor of spiritual paraffin." How I sympathize with that! I share neither Bergman’s interests nor his obsessions. He’s far more foreign to me than the Japanese. [...] There’s an awful lot of Bergman ... that I’d rather be dead than sit through.Again, what can one say? But all that's quite beside the point, the point being that Rosebud is as essential to Citizen Kane as was the gas in the Inquirer's gas lamps the day Kane first drafted his "Declaration of Principles" after which time Citizen Kane was everywhere recognized as the masterwork it so clearly is and subsequently elevated to its rightful place among cinema's greatest and most enduring achievements.