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Readers want to fire Reader movie critic

Dump Duncan Shepherd

Desk work

Some weeks ago, with no new movie in town worth writing about, and pretty much stumped for a way to wheedle another paycheck out of my publisher, I decided it might not be too troublesome to rustle up a few remarks about my long-brewing dissatisfaction with my mail at this paper. So I went ahead and rustled. And came the deluge! Part of the response to that article can be attributed, I am convinced, to last-minute postal splurging before the rates went from fifteen cents per letter to eighteen. But as a writer who had long been laboring under the assumption that my entire regular readership was made up of personal friends of mine whom I could number on my fingers, excluding thumbs. I was a bit taken aback. (There was very little evidence in the letters I had been getting to suggest that the writers of them were among my regular, or even my occasional, readers.) Recovery from my surprise, plus a sudden abundance of new movies in town that seemed worth writing about, has prevented me until now from answering the various letters with thank-yous or thank-you-but-no-thank-yous, as appropriate.

The percentage of letters that would come in for the former response was considerably higher than usual in the after-math of my article, but nonetheless remained the minority. Unofficial majority leader, by dint of sheer amount of time holding the floor, was one J. Michael Straczynski. Claiming he could no longer contain himself in the face of my continued abominations, but failing to mention that he had been similarly unable to contain himself in the correspondence column before, he set the tone for much of the return-fire by referring to me in his letter as “Dunky” and also as “old Dunky” — a rhetorical device I have only rarely run up against since the second or third grade. Straczynski, who stopped just short of enclosing a job application and resume, or we stopped short of printing them, did not relinquish the floor until his verbal portrait of me had been filled in with such adjectival details as “self-indulgent,” “self-impressed,” “self-righteous,” “petulant,” “pernicious,’’ “reprehensible,” “base,” and “unprofessional,” and such nounal details as “self-aggrandizement,’’ “arrogance,” “condescension,” “contempt,” “disdain,” “snobbery,” “smugness,” “pettiness,” “egotism,” and “a blight.” Me to a T, do you think?

I must say, even though it is probably not my place to do so, that I find it a little hard to understand what form of currency my self-aggrandizement can consist of when what I seem to make most of in this job is enemies. (Our J.M.S. can serve as the convenient example here.) It will doubtless be said by someone, and not for the first time, that I must get some weird kind of kick out of notching up the ranks of my enemies (“perverse” and its variations figured prominently in other people’s letters, although J.M.S. somehow overlooked them). I wouldn’t expect that anyone in his right mind, or at least anyone in such a mind who is also disposed to use it now and again, could seriously believe that I see the critic's role as being akin to that of the sideshow freak, the flasher, or the tackling dummy. But then again, I would not have expected that anyone in his right mind could have wasted as much space as J.M.S. did in attempting to refute points in my article that were made purely, or mostly, in jest. Rather than call for a count of Straczynski’s marbles, and taking him instead as proof that even a person in full marble-possession can go off baying on completely the wrong trail, it might be worthwhile to address a couple of his points which I would normally have thought common sense would have taken care of.

The first is his attitude of shock and dismay that I should give my vaya con dios to anyone who, unable to stand or understand my stuff, should defect to Rex Reed or the Variety box-office chart or Rona Barrett or the next-door neighbor or someone else deemed a more trusty weathercock than me. He seems to think I should run after these people, plead with them to come back, try to make it up to them somehow. I would not know how to do that without laying aside such things as conscience and conviction and taking up such things as popularity-seeking and bootlicking and flattery and demagoguery — qualities, that is, that seem to me far worse for a critic than whatever qualities J.M.S. is interpreting as arrogance, condescension, smugness, and all that. And I would defy him to name any writer in any field — any writer, I mean, with more spine than a banana — whose first order of business, whose motivating creative principle, is to please the people who don't like him. If feeling more responsible to those who do, if a willingness not to be loved by everybody, makes a writer appear in the eyes of some as arrogant, condescending, smug, and the rest of the litany — that's tough. Not everybody, after all, need bother reading movie criticism. Just as you needn’t bother reading novels if your appetite for the art of narrative is satisfied by office gossip, and you needn’t bother with newspapers if your interest in current events is satisfied by Johnny Carson’s monologue — so, too, it’s silly to read and quarrel with movie criticism if all you really care to hear about a movie is your own, or the average person’s, opinion of it. It doesn’t stand to reason that the average moviegoer is going to match up very well with the sort of person who would want to devote himself to the practice of criticism, who would be willing to put in the hours and put up with the grief, and whose frame of cinematic reference will naturally tend to be larger than the average person’s. And if you don’t want to know what that sort of person thinks of a movie, would rather know only what the average viewer thinks, then you would do well to confine yourself to the society of average viewers, or to the sort of critic, of whom there is no scarcity, who isn’t really up to the job or doesn’t mind debasing it.

The second point worth mentioning is Straczynski’s contention that my kind of critic, in a guilt-by-association sort of way, makes life tougher for his kind of critic, lowers his social standing, hinders him in his work. This is a laugh. The sort of critic who sets himself up as public servant or public mouthpiece, who measures his worth by his popularity or by his accuracy in predicting the public reception of a given movie, who boils criticism down to a yes vote or a no vote and doesn’t believe in burdening his audience with superfluities — the sort, in sum, who is in the clear majority in the critical fraternity and has significantly shaped, or bowed down to, the general public’s conception of what a critic should be —can hardly be said to have made life easier for the sort of critic who thinks that whether or not he or anyone else “likes” a given movie is much less important than what he actually has to say about the movie.

Getting that said, and getting it said well, tends to let a critic in for a charge of “verbosity,” which was levelled at me by several correspondents, first and foremost Craig Leimkuehler, but not J.M.S., who otherwise did not hesitate to make charges that might boomerang on him If I were to add to the list of common reader complaints that I suggested ought to be given a rest for a while, “verbosity” would be next in line. I don’t know what sort of things people are reading these days, and I suspect I don’t match up with the majority of people any better on w hat books I like to read than I do on what movies I like to see, but Leimkuehler’s comparison of me to film textbooks would indicate he has never honestly read an actual film textbook. It’s no doubt true that my stuff doesn’t read much like the daily newspaper or a restaurant menu or a bumper sticker, and you certainly can’t hurt my feelings by pointing this out to me. I hardly know what I can do about it at this stage, and I am sure it would be an intolerable imposition to suggest that perhaps a greater effect of lightness would infuse my stuff if, like the on-deck batter who warms up with a baseball bat made of lead, you were first to try reading a certified film textbook, preferably one written by one of the semiological theorists, or (if you want better writing) a chapter or so of The Golden Bowl.

Leimkuehler, I should acknowledge, balanced his strictures about verbosity with the conciliatory remark that critics are, after all, human beings, and I had the feeling that he was speculating that part of the motivation for my sounding-off had been similar to that of the Elephant Man, when, backed up to life’s urinals by the ravening mob, he turned round to face his persecutors with a heart-rending claim of membership in their very species. This, strangely enough, does seem to need to be pointed out about critics from time to time, but not as often, I think, as a critic’s also being a writer. Most people are far more willing to grapple with another person’s bare opinions than with his reasoning or his prose, and I don’t think I am mistaken in my belief that most of the backtalk I get in the correspondence column is in response to the capsule reviews (or, heaven help us, the star-ratings) rather than to the longer pieces.

Which brings me at length to a few of the deserved thank-yous. It was Chuck Sierra, in a sharply worded counteroffensive to the first wave of reader outrage, who cut right to the heart of the matter and made the point about a critic’s being a writer, and Kevin Kenyon came in with a letter so delightfully written that it reminded me why I am, or work at being, one of those. Lilli Greenberg, whom as far as I know I have never met, said she regarded me as a friend, and therewith got closer to why a writer writes than any of Straczynski’s “to inform, to advise, to praise, to decry, and to educate’’ platitudes. Donna Walker was so congenial as to find, amid my diagnosed cynicism and perfectionism, traces of a sense of humor, which some people can’t seem to reconcile with things like subordinate clauses and polysyllables. And Patricia Buckles went so far as to perceive some educational value. Well, it is not for me to know or to advertise my usefulnesses as educator, rib-tickler, or pen pal. All I can do is try to hold up what I see as my end of an ongoing discussion, and if I tend to turn my attention more toward those people who take an interest than toward those who make barnyard noises, or who doze off, or who can’t listen to contrary views without hurling a glass of wine in the speaker’s face and calling for the maitre d’ to remove the lout — I think that’s only natural.

The attempt made several weeks ago to coax the barnyard-noise-makers to join the discussion like grownups or to hold their peace can be judged a less than smashing success in the final tally. And the whole affair seemed to have gotten out of hand — or had it just gotten back to normal? — with the arrival of an “Open Letter to Film Enthusiasts, Advertisers, and Editors of the Reader," written by an M.D. Nation of La Jolla. For some reason my editor chose to get tough at this point and not run the letter. So it is up to me to be a sport and reproduce the letter here. This I do in full, with no editorial alterations beyond the typically necessary correction of spelling on my surname. I make a special point of its completeness in case anyone is stirred to ask the question, as I was, and as my original article had intended ! would never be again, of just exactly which of my many appalling, insulting, and repelling acts this particular letter writer had been so appalled, insulted, and repelled by. See for yourself:

“Having been once more appalled by the phenomenal insensitivity of your film critic; having once more noticed that readers’ pleas to “dump Shepherd” have been ignored; having been insulted once again by Shepherd’s truly repugnant sense of value, I have but one choice of action: I hereby announce that I shall refrain from reading your publication and shall try to boycott the establishments of your advertisers until you DUMP DUNCAN SHEPHERD. It is a small act indeed, but if other, similarly repelled film buffs joined me. . .?”

Boycott? Economic sanctions? And what will be the next step? Petitions? Picket lines? Dead cats on my doorstep? The asterisk key on my typewriter booby-trapped with nitroglycerin? Let’s agree that a certain loss of perspective has entered the picture here, and that the wise thing to do would be to open the window and let the air clear. Please, in other words, do not think it is my intention with these few afterthoughts to stir the whole thing up again, just when it has thankfully settled down. The truth is, I will not be paying any more attention. The time has arrived on my astrological calendar for me to crawl into bed with comforter, TV Guide, bottle of Madeira and box of Nabisco Triscuits, and embark on the proverbial Well-Deserved Vacation. For the duration, the apprehensive reader can feel safe to roam the pages of this paper without encountering the Mcdu.sa-like effects of my column.

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