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Charles Champlin on Criticism, in an Excerpt From ‘Conversations at the American Film Institute With Great Moviemakers’

Charles Champlin on Criticism, in an Excerpt From 'Conversations at the American Film Institute With Great Moviemakers'

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just four days ago in our weekly Criticwire Survey we debated the appropriate way for film critics and their subjects to discuss differences of opinion. In this excerpt from “Conversations at the American Film Institute With Great Movie Makers: The Next Generation” by George Stevens Jr. we see actor Charlton Heston (in bold) and longtime Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin discussing exactly the same thing all the way back in 1976.

Champlin, the Times‘ film critic from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, was writing in the days before the Internet and social media, but many of the issues at hand were exactly the same: the role of the critic, the nature of their work, and the ideal way to approach films. “In general” Champlin told Heston, “the way I think you proceed as a critic is simply to try, first of all, to accurately isolate the intentions of the film.” We can all probably think of critics who don’t look at things that way — criticizing the movie they wanted to see rather than the movie the filmmaker wanted to make — but Champlin says it shouldn’t work that way.  

I’m inclined to agree. I’m also inclined to agree with this gem he said belonged on every film critic’s desk: “There is a bad film in every good filmmaker and a good film in every bad filmmaker.”  I don’t know about you, but I’m hanging that one above my computer monitor right now.

Here’s the full excerpt from Heston and Champlin’s conversation.  You’ll find a link to purchase the full book, which also includes interviews with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sidney Lumet and many more, at the end of this post.

Any relationship a filmmaker has with a critic is apt to be gingerly, depending on what he said about your last film. If he panned it you think he’s an idiot completely bereft of any taste or integrity. If he spoke well of it you think he is a man of remarkable perception and one of the most cogent observers of the current film scene. I think one of the great characteristics Mr. Champlin has as a critic is a balance and moderation in what he says. I have disagreed with him and I have agreed with him, but I have never felt that he wrote with less than discernment and intelligence. Perhaps what’s most important of all is that he cares very much about film.

Thank you. Something else about being a film critic, perhaps here in this town more than anywhere else, where you are in the presence of the filmmakers and the performers and the writers and the directors, is that there is really so little dialogue on film with the critic, and one of the things that has pleased me about my acquaintance with Chuck Heston, which now goes back many years, is that he is secure enough – and I think that’s what it amounts to – to argue. We’ve had a marvelous exchange of letters, which goes back almost ten years. I just wish there were more people in this town who would take me or any other critic to task and point out, not that we are congenital idiots, but that there is another way to look at the film in question. I have never claimed infallibility, only honesty.

I’ve always felt that it’s not fair to argue with a critic about his opinion of your work, because obviously one is prejudiced about one’s own work, and one’s opinion could surely be described as less than totally objective. I’m happy to say you’ve given me some good notices but you’ve given me some bad ones too, and I’ve never come back at you on those. I think there should be a ground rule that a critic should be protected from somebody coming up and beating at him because he didn’t like what they wrote.

I can think of times when that wouldn’t be too bad an idea. I think there’s a kind of etiquette around town that you don’t say anything to critics one way or the other. If he praises you, you don’t acknowledge that. If he savages you, you don’t acknowledge that, either. I suppose there’s a certain kind of self-preservation involved, the feeling that you’re going to come up against the critic again and maybe he’ll take umbrage at the challenge.

Tell us how you became a film critic.

I come from a small town in upstate New York. It’s a resort town, in the sense that people would resort to almost anything to get away from it. That’s a tired joke. Actually it’s a very pleasant little town where they make champagne. My family had been in the wine business and I discovered quite early that wasn’t for me. I always wanted to be a writer, going back to about the time I discovered I could play neither cornet nor shortstop. I didn’t necessarily want to be a film critic. Interestingly enough, a lot of the people who are into film – the French critics who became filmmakers and Bogdanovich and some of the people around here – either saw film writing and criticism as the entrée to or the next to last step before becoming filmmakers. I thought of writing in a more general way, although I was turned on to movies early at the Park Theater in Hammondsport, now long gone. It had about seventy splintery seats and a kind of Ichabod Crane of a projectionist named Frankie Walters. The films we got in Hammondsport had been spliced so many times that I was really at an advanced age before I knew you could get through a whole feature without the film breaking at least once. We used to sit there in a small un-air-conditioned theater listening to Frankie up in the booth, screaming and throwing film cans around because of the condition of the prints. When I was about eight he let me open the curtain, which was my introduction to show business. I never saw any Metro films, because under the block booking situation at the time you couldn’t get MGM films in Hammondsport, so I had to ride a bike about eight miles to the next town where they did show Metro films. 

I went to high school in upstate New York and then went to Harvard, where I majored in English. I started college before the war and went back and finished up afterwards. Then I went to work as a trainee at Life, sorting pictures for about six months, and then was a Life correspondent in Chicago and Denver. I went back to New York and wrote about politics and other disasters from 1954 to 1959. I did political-convention stories in 1956, general assignment writing and reporting, but nothing yet in the arts. I decided I just couldn’t take living in New York, so I asked the magazine to send me out here. I arrived in 1959, and then as always Hollywood was in a crisis. Fox was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and I think they had a skeleton staff of about a hundred and fifty running the studio. There was a strike and everything was shut down in late 1959 and early 1960.

I did long interviews while I was here with Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, and I think the editors of Time decided that maybe I could talk to English people, so I was sent to the London Bureau and covered all the arts over there from1962 to 1965, a wonderful time to be in England. I did stories on Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson and David Lean, who was just finishing up “Lawrence of Arabia.” I met Peter O’Toole just as he came back from all those months on a camel. He was on his way down to Kent to a place that specialized in high colonics, to try to get his insides back in shape. There was a lot going on. David Hockney was beginning to emerge as a painter, and there were five symphony orchestras. 

It was while I was in London in 1965 that Otis Chandler had begun to make changes at the Los Angeles Times. Those of you who are from Los Angeles will remember how different the Times has become since 1960. It was always fat and gray and prosperous, but until Otis Chandler became publisher it resembled the right wing of the Republican Party. There’s a wonderful story about Los Angeles television that I think is also true of the Times in those days. The typical story would say, “Last night on Mount Sinai Moses handed down the Ten Commandments. The three of particular interest to the West are…” The Times was fairly provincial until Otis opened foreign bureaus. But they never even had an entertainment editor. I had lived here and was known a little bit, so they took me on as entertainment editor. For the first couple of years I was not reviewing films, I was just writing a column a few times a week. 

I didn’t have a particular desire to be a film critic and at one point even asked Arthur Knight if he would become the critic of the newspaper. He was working for the Saturday Review and teaching at USC and just didn’t feel he wanted to make that change. It suddenly occurred to me that I had perhaps, without consciously realizing it, been spending a lot of time getting ready to become a film critic. I’d been doing a lot of general assignment reporting dealing with the real world. I’d been working professionally as a writer for about twenty years and had been increasingly involved with the film process, so it seemed to me that maybe I should just have a go at it. It’s curious because there’s no body of dogma that tells you how to become a film critic, though there are collections of writing that I think are probably the only thing worth reading by way of getting into film criticism. I took off on a sort of unescorted trip to try to figure out how you went about being a film critic for a daily newspaper, which I think is a little bit different from being a critic for a weekly or a monthly magazine, or for a trade paper.

The policy of the Los Angeles Times is to review everything that opens for business. The exceptions are the lecture films and a few of the hardcore films, about which there isn’t really a lot you can say. But everything else we review, so you can imagine what the process involves. You’re doing a Disney film one day and “Seven Beauties” the next, and then something with John Wayne and then “Jaws.” The point is that sheer personal choice or preference obviously would not get you very far. “I like” or “I don’t like” will not suffice, because you’re going to have to be able to report with some kind of fairness and discernment about films which you obviously do not pay to see. I don’t know anybody whose taste or whose gluttonous appetite for films can embrace at a ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ level the whole range of films that a reviewer is called upon to see. You have to have some kind of mechanism that allows you to be fair to a wide range of films, some of which you might not dislike but that are not really your cup of tea. It seems to me that this is a very important critical quality of the film reviewer. I suppose what sets the critic aside from the audience that’s going to lay down the four bucks for an evening is that the critic is bound to ask what the intentions of the creative forces behind the film were, and what kind of audience the movie seems to have been made for. I think that the measure of a poor critic, and the fault you often find in young critics particularly, is an arrogant attitude that if they don’t like it, that’s it. Well, that’s not really enough. I think that the measure of a good critic is how well he can justify his position in terms of citing the evidence in favor of a film or the evidence that seems to weaken it. Even if I make clear at the start of a review that I think a film doesn’t work, I try to give the reader some sense of what the experience of watching that film will be so that he can decide whether to go see the film himself and then put his judgment against the critic’s. 

There was nothing in film going on at college when I was there. I tried to catch up with everything but confess that when I hosted a show on public television and introduced “Potemkin” and “M” and all those classic films, I was seeing the majority of them for the first time. You’re going to have a new generation of film critics that will have come out of the universities, possibly out of graduate studies. I have certain apprehensions about that, because having squeezed the vital juices out of Shakespeare, the academics might also be able to do it to film. I don’t think film can be defeated by academia, but I’m just not sure. Whatever else is true, people in college now, whether film majors or not, have the option almost everywhere to take film history and analysis courses. They can see “Birth of a Nation” and “Potemkin” and get some sense of the film past.

In general the way I think you proceed as a critic is simply to try, first of all, to accurately isolate the intentions of the film. Whether you like the film or not, you’ve got to try to figure out what it was that the filmmaker seemed to be trying to do, because you’re going to have to try to state those intentions. That’s part of your obligation to the creative side of the audience. Once you’ve discerned the intentions of the film, you’ve got some sort of a measure on it, because all intentions are not created equal, and whatever it was that Bergman was trying to do in “Scenes from a Marriage” and “Cries and Whispers” was obviously different from the intentions of, say, “Jaws.” I’m not going to say that the intentions behind one film are necessarily less honorable than those behind another, but the levels of intention are many and varied. So then the question is: how well have those intentions been brought off? 

It’s there that you get into all the elements that go into filmmaking. It seems to me that, particularly over the last decade, when the possibilities of film have really opened up, there is virtually nothing that motion pictures cannot show or deal with. The spectrum of film is so much wider now than it used to be. Under the Hays Code, and until the dawn of television, all movies were in effect G-rated and aimed, theoretically at least, at the whole family. Some were less appropriate for children, but theoretically there was nothing in a movie that was threatening to the least sophisticated or the youngest member of the audience. Now that old monolithic mass audience no longer exists, so the film critic is placed in a rather different position in society. It seems to me that more and more he’s under a heavy obligation to describe as sympathetically and as openly as he can the experience of that film. There are all kinds of audiences out there now, and part of the critic’s function is to introduce the film to the audience that may want to see it. I’m not suggesting that his powers of judgment have been diminished or are less important, but I do think the critic has to be of service to the audience in a lot of different ways.

I’ve often cited “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” as an example. The critics described that film as being about a ménage à trois, a bisexual one, in contemporary London. Once you have said that about the film, a certain part of the readership says, “No way. Thank you very much. I wouldn’t go near that film for any amount of money.” Fair enough. Another part of the readership, for various reasons of clinical interest, personal identification or whatever, says, “I don’t care whether it’s good or bad. I’m going to go see that film.” Fair enough. Then maybe there is some part of the readership that feels the critic has some credibility, and if you say that film is a classic, a masterpiece, the greatest film since last week, maybe those people will want to go see it. These people have no opinions one way or another about the material, but if it’s described to them as a superior piece of filmmaking, they’ll go see it. What’s important is that you’ve served different segments of the readership with the same piece of copy. The audience that now exists for motion pictures is probably more attuned to the critics than film audiences have ever been. I think that’s just the nature of the demographical shift of the audience that still goes to movies. The famous post-war baby boom has come of age, and they are well-educated people. It means that the critic no longer finds himself in the position that the critics of forty years ago were in. When James Agee and Dwight Macdonald were writing thoughtful criticism, they were fighting upstream against a torrent of mass-taste and perhaps felt very lonely. But today you have a different movie audience out there, and I think you find that a lot of the films that do very well at the box office will also have done well in top-ten lists across the country. I don’t think that means the critics have sold out to popular taste. Rather, I think that popular tastes and critical tastes are far closer together than many people think. The critics haven’t gone soft; it’s because the audience is very different from that automatic-habit-formed audience of the past. Today’s audiences want something more than they get on television.

Of course we’re all fallible, and there were those of us who didn’t like “Jaws” and so on, but I think that an audience really pays heed to the critics. Again, it may not be whether the critic likes or dislikes the film but the way the critic sets up and describes the film. The critic – or reviewer, if you prefer a less pretentious term, I don’t have any preference – has a kind of double responsibility. On the one hand he’s responsible to the creative community. He really does have an obligation to the people who make films. On the other hand, his primary responsibility is to his readership. Conflicting obligations? Not at all. I think you fulfill your obligation to the creative community by trying to understand and state as sympathetically as you can, what the intentions of the film were. I remember after a review I did of a film called “Secret Ceremony” several years ago, which I didn’t think was successful, I received a note from Joseph Losey, the director, who I’d had occasion to interview when I lived in London. He wrote to me and explained some of the problems he’d had with the film, including interference on the financial side. I don’t think he felt the film was as unsuccessful as I thought it was, but he said, “At least you tried to see it as a movie and not as a crime against civilization.” That is a phrase that has stuck with me.

Do you find yourself taking more pains with important films than with Walt Disney films?

In all candor I would have to say yes. I think you go to see some films with a greater degree of expectation than you do others. You go to see a Disney film and you know pretty much what you’re going to get. Disney films are hard to review, because by now they can only be compared to each other. Every critic has some kind of private Walt Disney spectrum. “It’s better than ‘The Gnome-Mobile’ but not quite up to ‘The Parent Trap.’” I think there’s an irony in your question, because the more a film aspires to do, perhaps the more severe the test that the critic puts to it. Such a film invites being taken as seriously as you can, so the complaints you would bring to “Cries and Whispers” will be things you might forgive any ordinary picture for. About those films you say, “Who cares? It’s a formulaic picture.” One really is as thoughtful about films as they demand. 

One of the hardest parts of your job is reviewing the work of a filmmaker you consider to be just terrible, yet somehow you have to separate the film from the fact that you don’t personally march to his or her drum.

I think every reviewer ought to put these words over his desk: “There is a bad film in every good filmmaker and a good film in every bad filmmaker.” The world is really full of surprises, and as much as you might admire “A Woman Under the Influence” you will then confront “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” As much as you might admire “The 400 Blows” and “Bed and Board” and “Day for Night,” you then come up against “The Story of Adele H.,” which I find to be a piece of cotton candy, a very disappointing film from Truffaut. There are others who feel differently. There are people you come to recognize as competent craftsmen, who bring their films in on budget without any particular personal signature except a kind of nice, well-lit competence, but given an interesting piece of material can rise to it and come away with a film which is interesting and has a kind of roundness that maybe some of the other work didn’t have. I can think of people whose work I’ve gone to see without any real expectations and have been really delighted to find that because of a kind of maverick script, they’ve produced a maverick film.

In a larger sense what worries me about being a critic is the danger of getting closed off, getting too professional, seeing too many films, running the risk of losing a certain kind of openness to a film which is not what you expect, which violates some of the canons of filmmaking, and being so rushed or tired or jaded that you don’t see it. That really is scary. I remember when I worked in London there was a young art critic for the London Times. He was then thirty-four years old. It was a time of ferment, and the people who were coming out of the Royal Academy were really full of vital juices. He resigned his job because he said that he was no longer absolutely sure he understood what the artists who were ten years younger than him were doing. Of course they replaced him with a guy who was fifty, so his honorable gesture came to nothing.

I don’t know how long a critic should review films. You can read some reviews and say, “Well, maybe they’ve seen too many films.” I think Bosley Crowther today has a diminished reputation. It’s too bad because he did great and noble service for many years when there weren’t a lot of people writing about foreign films. He was very sympathetic to these strange, harsh and abrasive films, but then when “Bonnie and Clyde” arrived he not only didn’t like it the first time, he kept going back to it and still didn’t like it. He was unceremoniously eased off The New York Times. He was, as somebody said, Bonnie and Clyde’s last victim. Maybe the point was that he was by then a little too sure of what he thought movies ought to be and do. I may have to be reminded of that condition in myself later on, but I hope not for a while yet. I think it’s just a problem of being open, of not being certain that a particular director is going to always make good films or that there’s no hope in somebody else. When the critic’s transcendent love of the medium begins to erode, as it sometimes can in the continuing presence of mediocrity, then it’s time for the critic to worry. Maybe he should shift his ground a bit and go into landscape gardening. Some people have been in the chair too long and are unable to be uplifted by anything. I look at my tongue in the mirror every morning just to see if there are any telltale signs of fatigue.

Excerpted from CONVERSATIONS AT THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE WITH GREAT MOVIE MAKERS: The Next Generation by George Stevens, Jr. Copyright © 2012 by George Stevens, Jr. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Conversations at the American Film Institute With Great Movie Makers: The Next Generation” is available now.

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