Friday, June 6, 2014

FFB: Steven Scheuer and Phil Hardy Memorial Redux FFB: Reviewing the Critics, A/V division: John Simon, Pauline Kael, Harlan Ellison, James Agee, Roger Ebert, Kathi Maio, Lucius Shepard et al.

Bill Crider let some of us know today about the death of Steven Scheuer whose books I'd reviewed here last month and three years ago (and Jeff Segal lets some more of us know this evening that Phil Hardy, editor of the Overlook book at the end here, has also joined the recently departed Ebert and Shepard...):

Steven Scheuer, television reviewer and historian and chat show host (most durably, oddly enough, for the public-broadcasting series All About TV, which changed title to World: Comm in its last episodes), was apparently the first to produce a volume of capsule reviews of films appearing on television, with the first edition of this Bantam Books stalwart appearing as TV Movie Almanac & Ratings in 1958, and the last edition, as Movies on TV and Videocassette, in 1993. Young film geek Leonard Maltin gained his early career in part by putting together his similar TV Movies volumes for Signet/NAL, in imitation and as an attempt at improving on the model of Brand X, starting a decade later (after Maltin had published his own film fanzine for a couple of years to help demonstrate his competence for such a gig), and the Maltin book of course continues to receive updated editions. But while Maltin strove to give more information in most entries than did Scheuer, and perhaps was a little more free with the snappish description of what he tagged "bombs," the approach of the two series was and is rather similar, and it was useful to have volumes of both during the 1970s particularly to weigh against one another as guides, and to see which films were cited in the one that weren't in the other.

James Agee wasn't our first serious film critic, nor was he the first to write intelligent film criticism for a lay audience from the perspective of a participant in the film industry. But he was among the first, and most of the better film critics and reviewers who have followed, if they have any sense of history and particularly the history of their field at all, have noted this and studied his work...a music critic could ignore the works of George Bernard Shaw similarly, but why?

For most of what's collected here, he was reviewing for The Nation, the leftist magazine of political and, secondarily but never without some interest, cultural magazine; he moved onto somewhat less engaging reviewing for Time magazine, but those columns are still worth reading as well. As a screenwriter and adapter of others' work (notably David Grubb's The Night of the Hunter and C. S. Forester's The African Queen...though IMDb notes John Collier had a hand in that script, as well) as well as an impressive essayist and fiction-writer on his own ticket, he loved film, and brought, as John Simon has been quick to note, a fan's enthusiasm to his subject, while not letting artistic gaffes get by dint of emotional involvement nor condescension; his grace and wit were amply on display as well. The author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family was unsurprisingly engaged by the characters in the works under question, and the verisimilitude brought to the handling of those characters, whether in "problem" dramas such as The Lost Weekend or Val Lewton's fantasy and suspense films, of which Agee was particularly fond (and Agee wrote at least one notable fantasy himself, "A Mother's Tale," aside from the recasting of The Night of the Hunter as more fable than not). Some of his views, such as his lack of absolute enchantment with the work of Billy Wilder, would be heretical if published for the first time today (and are more valuable for that). 

While the apparent former companion volume of Agee's scripts was not republished with this edition, it's even more a pity this volume is now out of print as well, but pretty well available secondhand.

I've been reading a fair amount of "vintage" newspaper and magazine film reviewing over the last month or so, and so have discovered that every bad thing ever said or written about midcentury primary New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther was richly deserved (not a complete dunce, but entirely too close for someone in his position), and generally that the most widely-read reviewers in the field in those decades were often a pretty undistinguished lot, particularly when compared to my earlier exposure to the likes of John Simon and Harlan Ellison and Pat Aufderheide. I've always had a less than thoroughly positive experience with Roger Ebert's critiques, certainly, despite both his obvious love of film (and his various activities to help popularize film festivals and general geekdom/appreciation in the field, not least his protean television series) and his status as a literary sf fan and infrequent contributor to the fiction magazines (Ted White published a couple of Ebert short stories in Fantastic and Amazing SF in 1972)...and certainly, over the last decade, he's been fighting a lot of personal health crises with every evidence of courage, grace and wit (between them, he and his old reviewing partner Gene Siskel have not been the most physically lucky of public figures). I just wish I liked his reviews better, for the most part, even though they, too, are much better than the likes of Crowther's on balance, and of the two too-young recipients of the Pulitzer for criticism at the turn of the 1970s, Ebert's award is slightly less puzzling than that given to Washington Post television reviewer Tom Shales. I picked up a copy of the 1996 volume of the Ebert Video Companion, which was conveniently to hand, to see how it would strike me.

About as much a mixed bag as I suspected it would. While I mostly agree with his positive assessment, and more importantly how he arrived at his positive assessment, of the charming if slight and somewhat improbably arrayed Before Sunrise (the decade-later sequel, Before Sunset, is a more mature similar work in every way, and beyond the obvious), Ebert appends a somewhat goofy tag from his mailbag, in which a law student who engaged in a similar experience to that of the film's characters found himself expelled from law school for lying about why he'd missed classes, with Ebert making a journalistic effort to get to the bottom of this rather fey incident. Moderately amusing, in context, and not actually harmful, but rather off-point in a book that could actually have offered another film review in that space. More offputting to me are the occasional clumsy bits, perhaps driven in part (as George Kelley is not alone in making this defense of Ebert and his colleagues) by the daily grind a newspaper reviewer can face, such as this sentence from the justifiably irritated review of Basic Instinct: "[Sharon Stone's character] is a kinky seductress with the kind of cold, challenging verbal style many men take as a challenge." Now, this is as much the fault of a theoretical copy-editor as Ebert, perhaps, and a small matter (though hardly unique in its challenge to even the casual reader); less forgivable is Ebert's consistent citation of the arbitrary, manipulative nature of the Joe Esterhaus script in this post-daily review, with particular harping on the clumsy trick ending...which Ebert nonetheless makes a point of not revealing, not even with a "spoiler alert" or other less blatant device, since he has done his best to get the reader wondering how egregiously bad it can be...and then leaves the reader with the options of forgetting about it, or seeking out and sitting through the film (or fast-forwarding, I suppose). Also attached is a rather leaden bit of business about Ebert chatting with fellow film reviewers about the excised 45 seconds from the film that MPAA demanded to change its US rating from NC-17 to R, where Ebert attempts to be humorously coy about the nature of the act portrayed, and doesn't quite succeed. Worse yet, he can suffer attacks of Auteurism in which a fiction-writer particularly should know better than to indulge, as with his review here of The Color of Money, which makes several at least interesting points about the failure of the film while at no time acknowledging that it is an adaptation of the novel, as the film it sequels was also an adaptation of a novel, by Walter Tevis, and the points Ebert is trying to make would only be strengthened by taking that fact into account (his critique would also be strengthened by noting the aggressively inept performance by Tom Cruise in the film, Cruise [never worse that I've seen] almost in couch-jumping mode and the most obvious reason for the failure of the film, but that is much less a matter of omitting useful and pertinent fact). And even the generally well-done critiques, such as that for Badlands, just don't rise to the level of perception and discernment that, say, James Agee's similarly brief reviews do (or, specifically, Simon's comparable review of Badlands). One can do worse, and frequently, I have had the sense over the years Ebert could do better...though sometimes, it's more that he's been given way too much credit for already having done better. (And not alone in this,, Ms. Kael, Mr. Sarris, and not a few others?)

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction hasn't solely been the most reliable of periodicals for good to brilliant fantastic fiction over its 62 years so far, but has also been a notable source of good nonfiction about the literature (its best decade for literary criticism has been the 1970s so far, which saw regular or occasional columns from Avram Davidson, James Blish, Joanna Russ, Algis Budrys, Barry Malzberg, Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison, Gahan Wilson, John Clute, Ron Goulart, George Zebrowski and others, though Davidson's service in this capacity during the latter half of his 1960s editorship was a delight as well, as was Anthony Boucher's similar double duty in the first decade of the magazine, and the fuller list of reviewers, including such later contributors as Elizabeth Hand, James Sallis and Douglas Winter and such earlier as Damon Knight, Judith Merril and Alfred Bester, is that much more impressive)...a source of good writing about science (Isaac Asimov's 399 monthly essays, and columns by Gregory Benford, Bruce Sterling, Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty, and Theodore Thomas)...and reviews of films and related dramatic forms by Charles Beaumont (oddly uncollected), William Morrison (who covered live theater), Samuel Delany (beginning with 2001, and also uncollected), Baird Searles (whose book Films of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which I've yet to see, presumably benefited from his decade of a/v reviews for the magazine), and then the three critics whose collected reviews we briefly deal with here: Ellison, Kathi Maio, and Lucius Shepard.

The in-print edition:

Harlan Ellison probably needs little introduction to most people who've found their way to this blog entry; hyperbolic when he wants to be, always ready to shake an audience of readers or auditors up as much as he can, he can be gauche, self-celebratory (not without reason), and sometimes a bit too facile in his irritability; he is also almost invariably incisive, well-informed, energetic and more frequently than his detractors usually admit striving to be evenhanded in his approach to his subjects, rarely sparing himself when he feels he has fallen short any more than he spares others. He's had exactly one cinematic filmscript actually produced, the famously awkward adaptation of Richard Sale's novel The Oscar, where the producers also took screenwriter credit and presumably added nothing good to film where Tony Bennett first demonstrated that he is an of the least equipped actors imaginable, not even a bad actor, just incapable. (Being a brilliant and perennially popular singer and, no kidding, a very impressive painter is enough talent for anyone.) And he's had a love/hate relation with television, where he's had dozens of script produced, helped launch or rescue several series, and employed his derisive pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird" when tv producers and others messed over his scripts...and won at least four script of the year awards from the Writers Guild of America West, the largely Hollywood-oriented segment of that guild. And, as this collection demonstrates, at least since high school, he's been publishing film criticism, as contributor and often columnist for the publications ranging from Cinema to Future Life, as well as famously as television critic most sustainedly for the Los Angeles Free Press, work collected in The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. So...he has the skills, the credentials, the background and the flair...what kind of critic is he? Kinetic, occasionally a bit self-contradictory (he can handle violence in films, but not in aggressively stupid films such as the original version of The Omen), and'll rarely come away from an Ellison critique wondering just how he felt about the item under discussion. The edition of Harlan Ellison's Watching I have is the Underwood-Miller pictured at the top of the page; there's a reprint in print, with about half as many pages (and microprint?) that is presumably unabridged, which I haven't seen.

Kathi Maio came to F&SF at Ellison's recommendation; her background in fantastic fiction and drama has been far more casual than that of most reviewers who have worked for the magazine, but she's an insightful and amusing writer, and brings both an openness to the fantastic and a commonsense approach to her reviewing, which she has done as a columnist for the leftist magazine Sojourners before taking the F&SF gig as well; Feminist in the Dark is a collection of her columns from the other magazine, featuring takes on slightly fantasticated or surreal films such as I Hear the Mermaids Singing as well as utterly naturalistic kitchen sinkers as Wish You Were Here and the no-nonsense brothel drama Working Girls; her takes on the films in question is by no means doctrinaire, even if it has drawn some criticism for seeing a little too much good in deeply flawed films that have interesting feminist aspects to them...however, this might be where her critiques are most valuable.

Lucius Shepard, a fiction writer of considerable talent and interesting background, has rarely been faulted for overpraising the works he's assayed for his columns for the magazine, and presented at (contrary to the banner at the ES page, you can simply click on some of the critique titles to read them without registering)...if anything, he, with far less direct experience in dramatic work than Beaumont, Searles (who worked in theater and in radio drama and documentaries), or Ellison, is often seen as excessively harsh on his subjects...I'd say that he's rigorous in his assessments of the faulty logic and sloppy storytelling that is usually given a pass if the visuals are pretty or spiffy enough, and while can be perhaps overly dismissive, he's very rarely what I'd call actually wrong about much of anything...just a bit put off by what particularly big-budget filmmakers think they should be able to get away with. His praise for good work, particularly that with very modest budgets, is unstinting, though not obsequious. And his damnation can be very funny, indeed, in a manner that most of the folks tapped for Rotten Tomatoes might well study to their benefit. (I have yet to see Shepard's collection of film review and other essays Weapons of Mass Seduction.)

Two of the more influential critical volumes in my reading so far, from often maligned critics (I remember a typically inane parody of Simon by David Sedaris in The New Yorker, too representative of both writer and magazine), about which I will have more to write after doctor visits and other business this morning!

And now we dig in a little. Both of these books are out of print, which is ridiculous, but some of Ellison (notably a new edition of Harlan Ellison's Watching with a Leonard Maltin intro) and much of Simon (huge compilations of even longer stretches of his film crit) are still earning some royalties, one hopes. Both men are seen as cantankerous, but are both relatively free of overarching ideology so much as personal conviction in their reviews...which by some benighted folks is a debit. However, both bring a wide-ranging knowledge of the arts (and beyond) to their work, and an incisive writing style, and a love and knowledge of their chose areas of study...even if Ellison (probably in Watching) wonders if Simon isn't just too divorced from the art to be a fully-successful critic; Simon doesn't return that favor, but in Reverse Angle does assess, rather evenhandedly, such other film columnists as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and the fellow I take to be Simon's greatest model, James Agee (some of whose own critiques have been re-released in the last decade). Ellison's greatest model might be his predecessor not only as brilliant fiction-writer and (often embittered) a/v script-writer but as visual/dramatic media columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Charles Beaumont (the editor of the subject of Jeff Segal's guest FFB from last week, below)...Beaumont, with supplement from William Morrison reviewing stage drama, was F&SF's columnist in the late '50s.

Ellison's "The Glass Teat" was his first regular tv column, for the Los Angeles Free Press around the turn of the 1970s, and The Other Glass Teat almost didn't get published, despite the The Glass Teat being a rather solid seller for Ace Books...Ellison notes that one of the columns collected in Other managed to reach Spiro Agnew, in which the Veep was accused jokingly of masturbating with copies of Reader's Digest, and Agnew let it be known through back channels that He Didn't Like This, and Ace put the first book out of print, and cancelled the contract on the second, allowing Pyramid to have it as one of the new books in their mid-1970s Ellison program (with Agnew by this time already facing his post-political career). This volume includes his reviews of some pretty impressive examples of the good and bad of television of that time, and a valuable example of a script he was commissioned to do for the Young, Hip, Relevant series The Storefront Lawyers...with co-lead Zalman King, of all people, in his pre-softcore (more or less) career (he did do some biker movies around then). And Ellison gets to note how the episode is messed with. The instructional aspect is comparable to his essay "With the Eyes of a Demon...".

Meanwhile, Simon keeps his wit and grace about him even when excoriating some of the worst excesses of the films of the '70s and '80s. His praise for the advances of the art, including the works of Ingmar Bergman and consistent Rara-Avis punching bag The Long Goodbye (as scripted by Leigh Brackett from the Chandler novel and directed by Robert Altman), are at least as searching and enthusiastic as his rending of the gauche and self-indulgent, including such monsters of self-indulgence as Jean-Luc Godard and Barbra Streisand, two of his targets which seem to get him in the worst trouble with the shallow of varying stripes. And, of course, he was in a short film for Saturday Night Live some years back.

Both men are feeling their years, these days, and neither is actively publishing film or television criticism (though Simon is still, I believe, writing about stage drama even after being clumsily fired by New York magazine a few years back. Neither has nothing left to prove, however, and digging into their work, and the work they admire, you will be rewarded if you explore.

As the primary film reviewer for most of William Shawn's ever more self-indulgent reign as editor of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael's column in that magazine was always a bit of a mixed bag, and that's reflected in the 1984 edition (the expanded first paperback edition of the 1982 Holt hardcover)(the image here is of a later edition of the paperback) of her capsule review collection (as taken from the "front of the book" "Goings On About Town" section of the magazine's issues). She was better-educated in the other arts than, say, Siskel and Ebert, and grossly moreso than the likes of Gene Shalit and Rex Reed, to judge by their output, among the most famous film reviewers of their day (and she was one of the few with a level of comparable name-recognition), and had a trenchant wit at times; she also displays a snobbery toward whole fields of film that seems less marked by ignorance (given, for example, how often she returned to horror film as a subject of both these capsules and her longer reviews) than by a desire to comport with the snobbery of the perceived audience, which I'd say is even more pathetic. Driven as the contents of this book were, in part, by what the revival and more eclectic houses would offer in NYC, this volume has in some ways a wider and more engaging remit than the similar Ebert or even the Scheuer or Maltin tv-oriented volumes, ranging back through time but also outward to more foreign films and documentaries...even as some of her worst writing is snide dismissal of films such as Cat People (1942)--while praising aspects of this film, particularly, backhandedly. Some of her other worst is still-just celebration of the likes of High School (1968), bad in large part because it was cramped by her format, while her quick analysis of the strengths (at least for some of its audience) and weaknesses (all-around) of Billy Jack and similar films is rather good...better than the others are likely to come up with, even with similar short takes, if they were even to take on the likes of the cinema verite documentary or some of the more obscure foreign films represented here. Laboring under fixed ideas, some rather eccentric to be kind (her review of How the West Was Won is largely a forum for her resentment of this, of all films', insult to US history and notions of manifest destiny), she was never a critic for the ages, but by the too-often weak standards of film reviewing, she was certainly in the upper middle rank, even if overcredited as a paragon; she was neither Dorothy Parker nor James Agee, of course, but wasn't actually comparable, either, even if also by no means dismissable (both points her colleague John Simon was quick to make in reviewing her collected criticism).

Here's the second and so far final edition (1993, after 1985) of one of the more impressive, if deeply flawed, reference/critical works in horror film; among the flaws is that the entries are unsigned, so that one can have the fun of trying to suss out if it was Kim Newman, Tom Milne, Paul Willeman, Julian Petley, Tim Pulleine or editor Hardy, or some combination, who are responsible for one opinionated entry or another. Another rests squarely with Hardy and his publishers and their editors: to make room for new content, two relatively minor films were dropped from this edition (albeit everyone who loves horror in my generation of USians has at least heard of Don't Look in the Basement), while all kinds of questionable inclusions (Sorority House Massacre, Three O'Clock High as examples from either end of the suspense film quality range featuring psychopaths) continue...and similarly quasi-relevant work (say, El Topo) is missing, or, like Kongo, only mentioned in the entry for a film it's closely related to, as in this case as a non-silent remake of West of Zanzibar. Less of a judgement call, the index is all but useless unless you know the title or the common alternate titles of a film they offer a primary entry for; it a title is only mentioned in the text of a primary entry, good luck finding it, as with Kongo. (They have cogent things to say about the most obvious horror and horror-related films of Ingmar Bergman, but no entry in the index for The Devil's Eye, or Wild Strawberries, with its notable nightmare-sequence beginning...which would be more forgivable without full entries for the likes of Fatal Attraction.) And, as almost everyone complains about this book, it's no dry simple compendium of facts, but an often self-contradictory repository of strong opinions; someone on staff really hates Robert Bloch's scripts (without noting how much they were meddled with by the likes of producer/directors William Castle and Milton Subotsky, which one would think might be the purview of a book such as this), while someone else makes a point of praising (justly, I'd agree) the likes of the mistitled (not by Bloch!) Torture Garden (someone presumably had a copy of Octave Mirbeau's novel kicking around the office).

But in this enumeration of some of the faults of the book, I think you might be gathering some of the virtues: it's by no means a comprehensive account of all horror films made (it misses a whole lot of video-only items, including such cult gems as Trancers and Subspecies 2, while noting others as it occurs to them to do so; Japanese and some other east Asian horror filmographies are given a reasonably good representation, but hardly a thorough one, and Korean films--admittedly a booming business in the years since--hardly represented at all), it is in its nearly 500 oversized pages full of informed consideration of a wide range of horror film, including any number of obscurities that might be new to all but the most knowledgeable fan/scholar. It's the kind of book that lends itself to an online or at least hypertextual sequel, and is worth your attention if you come across it. I can see why it's fetching such large prices on the secondhand market. Thanks to Kate Laity for the gift.

Steven Scheuer and panel on CBS's future, mid 1990s:


For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Walker Martin said...

After watching many films, especially film noir and westerns, I check out the critical comments on IMDB. Bosley Crowther had impressed me as one of the most negative critics. It's a wonder the NY Times did not realize that he simply did not like most movies, even the good ones.

Pauline Kael has annoyed me many times with wrong headed reviews and I now think she is overrated.

James Agee is a big favorite of mine and you can't go wrong reading his film criticism.

George said...

I'm with Walker on Pauline Kael. Roger Ebert and I agreed on movies about 90% of the time. There was no doubt he loved movies and that shows in his reviews. Some reviewers don't seem to like movies just like some book reviewers don't seem to like books.

Todd Mason said...

Crowther was dyspeptic, but even more he was (frankly) stupid. Comparable to someone like Rex Reed, and Reed is more interested in the gossip anyway. Yeah, I found Kael wildly overpraised when she was still active, even moreso than Ebert. And, as you can tell, I agreed in advance on the sterling qualities of James Agee's criticism, to which John Simon compelled my attention.