Reader movie critic Shepherd answers his detractors

Shoot if you must this old grey head

Sound of Music — one star (low rating), a judgement criticized by readers.
  • Sound of Musicone star (low rating), a judgement criticized by readers.

Out of all the feedback to this run-down column — some of it reaching me by way of letters-to-the-editor, point-blank, and some of it by way of grapevine, snaking from the blindside — has crystallized a gripe that seems to me somewhat astray. But, in various shapes, it revisits me persistently, to hound me or haunt me. And so, to many people, evidently, this gripe seems not astray at all, but sure and just and pounding at the right door. It appears to be a case of a misunderstanding, somewhere, and it seems worthwhile to delve a little into the substance of the gripe, on the chance of waving off any further rappings. (The Siamese cat is a bit vexed about being slapped and scolded on the grounds that he is not behaving like a proper bird dog, and would like the matter straightened out, straight away.)

The complaint, each time, turns up with slight variations depending upon the plaintiff's boiling point and ventilation system. But the complaint, enough times, runs the same course that a representative complaint could speak for the gathering mob. It would start off in this manner: "I have always read the reviews of the Reader's film critic with some interest, as idiosyncratic as they may sometimes be, but now I am deeply dismayed." The flight-pattern of this starting thrust may be duplicated at different emotional altitudes. But it will remain almost perfectly parallel: Things had been tripping along, between the critic and the reader, and then something happened. As additional samples of the process, consider (a) "I have intrepidly followed the reviews of the Reader's film critic, as dartling, hither-and-thither as they may sometimes be, but now I am frankly fogged in," (b) "I have generally defended the reviews of the Reader's film critic, as wobbly, frail, and begging-for-it as they are, but now I am rotating my cannons 180 degrees," (c) "I have long endured the perversities perpetrated by that so-called film critic, but now I must ask him to kindly get off," and (d) "I've put up with plenty from that Dunce Shepherd, and now I have just one word for him — desist."

This dive, which can be executed from any height, is described in manuals as a slight-delay, half-twist, backward-somersault into wounded hopes, reluctant resolution, and when-in-the-course-of-human-events, etc.

This part, so far, is only the introduction, to indicate the gradual bending of the reader's tolerance beneath the accumulation of heavy grievances, and this part usually contains the only indecisiveness of the complaint. Things were tripping along, then something happened. Patience snapped — that was the spur to action — and the gist of the complaint is revealed in a rush. It can be summed up in a single sentence, for all these complainers come together here, no matter at what level of tolerance they began or how precipitous the fall of that tolerance. If an imaginary movie title may be inserted to cover the various actual causes for complaint, then what the complainer has to say, simply, is this: "I liked Brussels Sprouts, my friends liked it, Time Magazine liked it — why doesn't he like it?" The complainer expects to be in agreement: he is certain that there is some chicanery afoot if his innate common sense clashes with some idea he encounters: and he is undoubtedly the one in Humanities classrooms across the country who declares out loud, citing the fusty wrong-headedness of their ideas, that Plato was an ostrich, Augustine a bat, Strindberg a pig, and Hemingway a lot of bull.

Somewhere in back of the complainer's incredulity, assuredness, alliances, and uncontrollable pique, upon encountering a disagreement, resides an implicit assumption of what the movie critic's job ought to be, ideally. The picture is as follows: The critic should, first of all, strive to express the viewpoint of his reader. The critic's success can be measured by means of, or in terms of, tuning forks: he is "on" or he is "off." (On that very track, a movie trade publication at one time kept a "box score" on the New York critics, to record statistics on how regularly each critic's choices went on to "hit" or "miss" with the public.) Since criticism is a job and a service, like cutting hair, reading palms, or setting the odds on the weekend football games, the critic's impulse to write should be the intention of accurate forecasting, of foreseeing the reader's reaction to a movie. If the critic cannot prepare the reader for what thoughts and feelings will be his, should he decide to attend a movie, the critic is worth little. He is an unreliable guide. The vilest misdeed of a critic is to be misleading. (And willful contrariness is a common occupational malady of movie critics, who are prone to malice because they themselves have less fun going to the movies after it becomes their job.)

It is undoubtedly possible for a working critic to conform to the foregoing conception; it is not remotely a requirement for him. Such a conception is bunk, and more than that, it is vindictive bunk. It probably pertains to movie critics more than to most other kinds, because, on movies, the reader of criticism is likely to believe that he, as well as anybody, can distinguish the good from the bad. Afraid that what the critic desires to be, topmost, secretmost, is a legislator of taste (which is another popular misunderstanding), this reader would pull the critic low, attach him to a leash, and make him into a nice complement, or compliment, to the reader himself. The critic can serve to put into print what the reader already knows, will know, would know if he wanted to bother. He can make it official.

Needless to add, any reader who harbors such a conception of critics, or anything close to it, should be flagged down and warned before mucking about in this column. The premises of that conception are more or less opposite to the premises held around here. Here, the critic is held to be less a guide than a traveler, keeping in touch, always turning up again, reporting back: and the reader is a fool if he is content to collect information from no more than one critic: and the principal way for a critic to be misleading is for him to misrepresent himself, by telling of things he does not really know about or telling things he does not really believe, and there is plenty of that going on.

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