On the Critic-Proofing of Artists, and the Irresistible Allure of Flaws

This is the first post I have made on this blog in quite some time.  The manuscript of my upcoming book, Sidney J. Furie: A Filmmaker Works the Angles, has finally been submitted to my publisher and I am moving on to finish editing on my two features, Ezer Kenegdo and Raise Your Kids on Seltzer.  More to come on the blog soon, including Aaron Hollander's long-awaited article, a survey piece on the horror genre.

I realized something about myself over the course of writing my first book -- that I, in many ways, strive to be the champion of the un-championed and under-championed when it comes to my study of film.  Fair enough, you say, but why is this such an epiphany?

I feel that identifying as such gets regularly equated with being a contrarian.  I actually do not see myself as a contrarian, but if you wish to label me thus, I suppose it is not so far off, in a way.  In conversations with people about film over the years, though, I find myself immediately peeved over the fact that there are some directors I am not free to openly criticize, filmmakers with works to which I am supposed to feel beholden -- or, works that I am cornered into blindly admiring to suit the expectations of canonists.  As someone who routinely (and religiously) consults Andrew Sarris's milestone text The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, and as one without hesitation in valuing Sarris's work over Pauline Kael's in their infamous schism, I still cannot help feeling that, in many ways, Sarris pigeonholed auteurist study, and became too much of a taste-maker for his own good, inadvertently or otherwise.  He deserves credit most of all for importing the auteur theory of France to America, but he also did his part in critic-proofing many directors he used to make his case.

I enjoy playing a game I invented called the Auteur Game, i.e. coming up with a pithy statement that encapsulates a given director's work when it comes to theme and approach.  We often play it on my movie sets, at lunches and the occasional downtime between takes.  For instance, Norman Jewison: "Easy-to-package, easy-to-digest messages, often with a salt-of-the-earth ethnic angle (Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, Italians in Moonstruck, Russians in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!  Bohunks and Eastern Europeans in F.I.S.T.)"  It is also rather fun to consider what Sarris might have written about filmmakers who arrived on the scene after his book was published in 1969.  A good one for Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Weekend at Bernie's): "Renders stories about often reckless social climbers, or less specifically, people looking to break out of some kind of trap, in whatever degree of comedy or tragedy."  Who knows what Sarris would have made of Paul Thomas Anderson or Richard Linklater?

When the spirit moves me to check into a book about Hitchcock, I first turn to the chapter about Topaz (1969), one of his major flops.  In my recent reading of Jared Brown's biography on Alan J. Pakula, the very first thing I did was open to the chapter on Dream Lover (1984), Orphans (1987) and See You in the Morning (1989), to see what Pakula possibly had to say about three of his biggest misfires.  This to me is more of a window into the soul of an artist.  It says much more than any masterpiece (and the holy-holies and hosannahs that a masterpiece incites) can ever say.  When I look at any book on Joseph Losey, I first turn to the chapters on Modesty Blaise (1966) and/or Boom! (1967), two of his most embarrassing flops.  I also place great value on self-critical directors, and was delighted to discover that Pakula spoke frankly about what he perceived as drawbacks, even in his hits.  That's real.  That's the good stuff, and I do not care that anyone else may think I'm misguided in this approach.  I learn the most as a filmmaker and as a film scholar from excerpts like these.  I can faintly hear a Hitch cultist protesting, "Hitchcock had no need to call out his own cinematic flaws!"  What a pity -- we might have learned something more incisive about the man's art!  Instead, we just have people making vacuous Hitchcock homages without understanding what they mean.  A flop, a bomb, a misfire, or whatever you care to call a perceived failure, is an index, one that emboldens and guides deeper study.

I am not denying the fact that figures like Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford and others have the right to be called masters, definitive ones at that, but when I am to accept them as infallible demigods and when I am nothing but obliged to stand back in awe without being given the courtesy of looking at their respective corpus with a real critical eye, one that I feel might truly get to the heart of them and what they are about, as individuals as well as artists, I start losing interest in them.  I will try to divert a conversation about Hitchcock to a conversation about something or someone else.  If I cannot discuss them in this way, what worth are they to me?  Kubrick has likewise positioned himself as untouchable, I believe partly because of the personal mythologies that have built up around the man as a recluse, an eccentric, an iconoclast, an obsessive, a...genius (though, I still emphasize that I love Kubrick's work, flaws and all, and revisit his pictures at least once a year).  In certain cases, it would seem that this critic-proofing centers around the cult of the personality.

But, as Mozart says in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, "Come on now, be honest!  Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules?  Or Horatius, or Orpheus...people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!"  This is not to equate Hitchcock or Kubrick with Hercules or Orpheus, or to equate my contenders with hairdressers.  What I look for in true artistry, however, are beautiful flaws, ones that canonists are often eager to claim do not exist in works that they deem beyond reproach, despite lame protestations on their part that this is not so.  Sarris was among this breed, though his writings are deserving of praise and were rightly groundbreaking in their time.  There is also Jonathan Rosenbaum's text Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons to perpetuate these tendencies.

[from Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (1999)]
David (Hugh Grant): What type of paintings are you interested in buying for your collection?
Frenchy (Tracey Ullman): Uh, Rembrandt, Picasso, Michelangelo.  You know, the boys.
David: [sarcastically] Uh huh, yes.  I'm afraid I might be out of Michelangelos at the moment.

My Sidney J. Furie literary project has been met with as much intrigue and applause as it has met with cold but courteous dismissal.  It is interesting to note that the personalities in the film world that originally mattered the most to me are the ones who ultimately saw the value in it when I finally met or made contact with them.  (Intuition is a funny thing.)  The detractors, who shall remain nameless, are people who, in the ensuing time it took to write the book, were keen to write the umpteenth piece that worships one of "the boys" (Hitch, Hawks, Ford, et al.).  I can cite at least three examples, and I would do so here if I didn't have to fear retribution, even the meager variety brandished by scholars, aesthetes and film snobs.  To me, it just spells ignorance and obstinance.  Thankfully, I found a leading publisher and a series editor who found the project ripe with potential.  I was also consoled by this thought: Who in the U.S. took Howard Hawks seriously before Peter Bogdanovich's famous Hawks monograph?

Let us take, for example, more recognized directors whose careers often took left turns.  Case study number one: Robert Altman.  Whereas Altman is certainly beloved, and no one will begrudge him his successes and the advancements he made in the form, he still has not ascended the canonical heights the way that "the boys" have.  For every Nashville (1975), there is an O.C. & Stiggs (1985).  For every McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), there is a Beyond Therapy (1987).  This is not to mention other written-off works in Altman's wildly scattershot, but seductively fascinating, oeuvre, like Quintet (1979), Popeye (1980), HealtH (1980), Ready to Wear (1994), The Gingerbread Man (1998), Dr. T and the Women (1999).

However, the truth in my case is that I would rather watch any of those films in lieu of seeing Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Psycho (1960) repeated times, just because of how beautifully flawed all those films are, and how ready and enthusiastic the Altman fans are to discuss these flaws.  If I told Hitchcock cultists that The Birds (1963) is a horrendous piece of shit (as I believe it is) and Hitch's worst film by far, I would be ostracized and ridiculed, even if I were to specifically, respectfully and responsibly remunerate why I believed such a thing.  Same with Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), another work I find wildly overpraised.  Or Ford's The Searchers (1956), though I know for a fact that I'm not alone in this sentiment regarding that particular film.

Altman's work has a vulnerability when put under the critical microscope.  That to me is attractive, because it more fully reveals the man who is behind and beneath the work.  What makes his work most worthy of note is that Altman strikes an assured balance of quality and vulnerability (in which case, it often appears that a given work teeters on the edge of falling flat on its face, yet somehow doesn't).  This is part of what makes him one of my personal filmmaking masters.

Case study number two: Woody Allen.  People run hot and cold on Woody, and this has been so from the very outset of his career.  Like Altman, for every hit, there is a flop, and though he is a stalwart in the form and style he has established for himself, he is nonetheless still erratic and unpredictable.  However, in lesser appreciated works like September (1987) and Celebrity (1998), for all their faults, I get more of a sense about the truth of him as an individual than in many of his other films, by sheer virtue of the fact that most discard them as failures.  I personally don't think Celebrity is nearly as bad as folks make it out to be.

With Sidney J. Furie, I had to contend with folks who had only a memory of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Ladybugs (1992) and his string of direct-to-video quickies, rather than the works as I deem as so-called "masterpieces," including The Leather Boys, The Ipcress File, Lady Sings the Blues, The Boys in Company C and The Entity.  It was a case of selective memory, and this was enough to cast him out of the "cool kids club."  That said, I dislike using the word "masterpiece" in really any case.  It makes me very uncomfortable, because it tends to negate a work, to strip it of its individuality, as I discussed above.

I happen to know someone who wrote and published a book on one of "the boys," and when last year I e-mailed him to discuss George Cukor, another favorite director of mine (one who was having a retrospective in New York at the time), he responded: "Strangely, I prefer Cukor to Hitchcock and many other higher rated directors.  I never say so publicly.  But I much prefer his subject matter and his humanism."  This comment was wholly unsolicited by my own feelings, and we had not even been discussing them when he brought it up.  This, dear readers, is what I mean by the critic-proofing of artists.  There is such a thing as sacrilege in film conversations, but it pays to be irreverent.  Here we have a thoughtful film scholar and cineaste who is silenced into canonist submission.  So, I'll just say it.  Hitchcock is great, but flawed.  There, I said it.  Before anyone gets sore or sour, and if you haven't guessed by now, here is my point: A substantive discussion of film should not consist of a flood of adulation, an oohing and ahhing at those who rest at the top of some ad hoc food chain.  Sure, a biographer or the author of any work must insure that a work will sell, and that there will be interest, and canonical directors are certainly ones readers know.  Who wants to invest in a work of such scale if it will only see an audience of one?  The focus, however, has skewed to the point where "the boys" have the monopoly, and the rigidity of canons becomes obstructive and, in many ways, destructive.  To quote Carol Burnett in Alan Alda's marital dramedy The Four Seasons (1981), "When you call me perfect, I cease to exist!"

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