A Woman In Love With Film Critics

When I recently served as guest curator of the French Institute’s current series on remakes, one of my duties was to moderate a panel of movie critics. It was a lively, contentious discussion, full of overlapping dialogue as we wandered merrily over the map of world cinema-French films, dubbing, globalization, various bowdlerized versions of Singin’ in the Rain , Jean Renoir versus Fritz Lang versus Francis Weber, why people learn French, and even, occasionally, remakes.

One point of the series, which pairs 12 French originals with their American spinoffs, is that audiences on this side of the Atlantic rarely get a chance to see the originals: They are either suppressed by the buyer-studio, or they open in somebody’s living room. It’s not a case of butchering sacred masterpieces, but simply of Hollywood treating French cinema as a sort of farm team for high-concept properties, market-tested movies to be plucked and recycled for American stars.

“Every film, every work of art, is a remake of something ,” said Richard Corliss, the first panelist, only to quip later: “It’s the duty of the first panelist to indulge in broad generalizations which he can then spend the last five minutes retracting.” Jean-Pierre Coursodon, bilingual retired professor and expert on American cinema, poured l’eau froide on pretty much everything; Dave Kehr challenged the cliché of an evil, money-mad Hollywood polluting the world with bad copies. Andrew Sarris, last but unstoppable once he got the mike, eulogized the cinema as an art “that is always dying. Viewers don’t mind the same plot as long as other things change. That’s what’s exciting, the constant promise of new faces and new flesh.”

Afterward, members of the audience lined up in five neat queues to talk to each of us. As I tried to fend off a disgruntled patron, out of the corner of my eye I caught my husband-Andrew Sarris-being happily monopolized by a female who was tall, young, blond, certainly new of face and flesh. Another woman who had arrived late asked him if he was Vincent Canby.

“No,” said Andrew, a legend but not at The New York Times .

“Oh. I love film critics,” she said.

Ah, a film critic groupie! I thought back to my own days as Eve Harrington when I had yearned not to be Margo Channing, but to be-or to marry-Addison De Witt. It wasn’t a consciously formulated idea, of course. I had ambitions, but in those pre-feminist days, I couldn’t imagine what to do with them, and the underlying corollary was that the only way to be what you wanted was to marry what you wanted to be. I gravitated toward men whose sensibility corresponded instinctually with my own. Call me kinky, but I found, and continue to find, movie critics some of the most entertaining folks around. O.K., they’re not what your mother had in mind when she said you could fall in love with a rich man as easily as a poor man, but look at the advantages: They’re poor, so they can’t do drugs. They’re too smitten with the icons on the screen to have affairs. And they’re too ironic to go New Age on you. They’re well educated and funny, intellectual without being snobbish, literary without being egomaniacal. They’re humble before the vastness of the medium and uncorrupted by the make-or-break power wielded by critics in the more esoteric arts.

And they’re modest because nobody ever says anything nice about them. Kenneth Tynan derided critics as people who know the way but can’t drive the car. I can confirm that from personal experience: My husband can’t drive worth a damn.

And-this was the late 60′s-they were passionate about the medium at a time when there was suddenly a lot to be passionate about.

It’s true that when gathered, they tend to erupt in trade stats and crushes like the most besotted sports fans, but insights rather than budgets are their stock in trade, and to me a finely turned insight is a prize and a pleasure beyond jewels, beyond reckoning.

I was working at the French Film Office, putting out a newsletter on French films, when I met the Chief Auteurist at The Village Voice . I tagged along when six or seven reviewers got together at Hollis Alpert’s apartment to form a protest group, feeling the need to provide a counterweight to the enormous and singular power of Bosley Crowther at The Times . Thus was born the National Society of Film Critics. Joan, Hollis’ wife, served booze and munchies. Brendan Gill, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffman, Joe Morgenstern, Dick Schickel, John Simon were early members.

There were 12 aboard when they decided to formalize, and a certain distinguished member was asked to become chairman. He cleared his throat and said, “I accept the position of chairman and my first question is, What is Molly Haskell doing here?” Stunned silence. Who was I, why was I there? Well, like, I mean, why not, they were my buddies.

While I was having an identity crisis, someone rose to champion me. “She’s our uh, she could be our secretary.”

A split-second’s hesitation. Then Chairman X: “Well, that’s fine. Do you accept the position of secretary?” What could I do? My desire to be with the guys ran up against my loathing of clerical work. I accepted the secretarial position and, in truth, the tasks were not burdensome. In a few years, I became a reviewer and was not too proud to accept membership, when it was offered, in the N.S.F.C.

What excited the audience at the French Institute was that our discussion brought back those heady days when film culture was a movable round-the-clock feast of debates and controversies and head-on collisions, and critics were still trying to come to terms with the medium, which could be both unsavory and respectable, small and grand. When a breathtakingly exciting European cinema (and body of French criticism) intersected with an American cinema whose meanings had expanded, whose treasures awaited further exploration.

For a while, we owned the territory. Of late, there have been lamentations for the passing of cinema and cinephilia, but in fact there are more movies, more developing filmmaking cultures, more movie lovers than ever before. What has changed is precisely the intimate us-against-them nature of film culture, the hegemony of a select few, Eurocentric, literate, modernist.

Oh, the battle lines within cinephilia were fierce, the dialectics dramatic, but only because it was basically a homogeneous group struggling to define esthetic terms in a newly created rhetorical arena. Gone are the simple divisions and czarist dictates, like the gurus of British buffdom saying if you liked Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terrible you couldn’t like Tales of Hoffman , or François Truffaut proclaiming you couldn’t admire both Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. The polemics needed to energize the debate are now commonplace. We recognize those as simplifications even as we yearn for the catch phrases of the old days, now that visual information is proliferating madly amid the new technologies. Now that a cult film is made every 15 minutes, and every other film and television show is a product of noir revisionism; now that everyone you meet at a party thinks he or she is a movie critic, and every taxi driver knows the three top opening films of the weekend.

Cinema is dying. Cinema is being reborn. That’s a generalization I won’t contradict.