Arts And Movies
By Mr. First Nighter
This is the time of year for movie critics to roll out their awards and their ten-best lists. and I am forced to take a long, hard look at the cinema from the fact that I cannot come up with a "ten best" list at all. For in the cinema we must wage the same struggle that we should have been fighting in the rest of the culture since the turn of the twentieth century: on behalf of the old, bourgeois values and against the morbidity and unreason of the avant-garde. Unfortunately, the avant-garde has now become "the garde", and so it becomes more important than ever, in the movies as well as in literature, art, and music, to raise the standard of the arriere-garde — a rear-guard struggle against a diseased culture.
The carriers of the disease are of course the intelligentsia, for the cultural instincts of the middle-class are sound, and generally they put up a lengthy resistance to the irrationalism of the cultural "elite". We then have two cultures: the sound, if often stodgy, "commercial" culture of the bourgeoisie; and the arrogantly morbid, involuted culture of the intellectuals. This unhealthy split between the cultures did not really exist before 1900; before that, when what we might call the "classical culture" held sway, the leaders in art, fiction, music, etc. were of the same cloth, albeit on a far greater and more creative level, as the popular artists; indeed, the greatness of the leaders — of the Rembrandts, Mozarts, Verdis, etc., was cheerfully acknowledged by the mass of the bourgeoisie. "High" culture was profound, to be sure; but it was also understandable on the mass level, as well as repaying long hours of diligent study. Keats, Mozart, Rembrandt, etc. were instantly understandable to the mass as well as being profoundly intellectual leaders of the culture.
But at approximately the turn of the twentieth century, the intelligentsia began to succumb rapidly to morbidity and irrationality; cultural disease swiftly replaced cultural health. The differences between the rationalist, the romantic, etc. variants are not very important here; the vital point is that the glorious "classical" mainstream of art and culture: from the Renaissance to the magnificent Baroque to the 18th century rationalists to the 19th century romantics — that all of these form the noble heritage of Western culture and civilization. And that that heritage began to crumble rapidly into cultural degeneracy: a degeneracy that included the flight from realism, classicism, and rational space in art; from purpose and plot in fiction; from clarity in literature generally; and a flight from melody and harmony in music. It was, in classical terms, a flight from beauty in the fullest sense and the embrace of the ugly; a rush away from optimism, purpose, and life toward morbidity and death; and an escape from reason on behalf of the irrational.
While the bourgeoisie have put up a heroic resistance to this twentieth-century plague, they were bound to lose out when permanently deprived of intellectual and cultural al!ies. And so in fiction, where have been the great classical writers since Somerset Maughan? In the theater, where are the successors to Shaw and Wilde? In art, the Wyeths, John Koch and a few others have kept the realist tradition beautifully alive, but they have been largely ignored by the chi-chi art world which has rushed to lionize the Picassos, Mondrians, and Pollocks. In music, the barbarities of modern music, from the atonal to the electronic, have fortunately been checked by the customers, who insist on the recording and the concertizing of the classical masters. In popular music, however, both "classical" pop and "classical" jazz have lost out to the barbarities of atonal modern jazz and of acid rock.
For a long time, the movies were the last stronghold of the arriere-garde. There are two good reasons for this: one, that the movies are our newest art form, and two, that since movies are dependent on a mass audience, the basically sound taste of the masses for a long while kept the intelligentsia on a short leash. But now the spread of irrationality has hit the movies in a big way, and the defense of the classical movie — the "movie movie" — must be a bitter struggle against the rising if not dominant tide of "intellectual" degeneracy.
By "degeneracy" I of course do not mean pornography, which serves as a wrong-headed focus for many conservatives. Pornography had always formed a harmonious "left wing" within the Victorian culture. The problem in the movies is not sex but unreason, an absurdism that infects both the point of view of the film and the techniques of the camera. The Enemy on the movie front is not the California porno king; our war to the metaphorical knife is not with the makers of Deep Throat but with the Bergmans, the Buñuels. the Antonionis, the Fellinis, the Godards. The truly obscene is not the happy, fun-loving School Girl, but such monstrosities as Juliet of the Spirits and Last Year At Marienbad.
Neither is "violence" the problem, as so many movie critics are maintaining. Violence is a perfectly proper dramatic tool; the real question is the point of view, is how violence is being used in the film. Once again: look to the intellectuals, to the avant-garde, and you will find precisely the wrong point of view. The intelligentsia, for example, loved A Clockwork Orange, with its random and meaningless violence, but they hated with a purple passion those films where violence is used as an instrument of justice, of defense against crime. In short, they hate Dirty Harry or such great John Wayne films as Chisum or Rio Bravo, and they have the gall to denounce the supposedly "meaningless" violence of such Sam Peckinpah masterpieces as The Wild Bunch. (It is interesting that the intellectuals preferred Peckinpah's inferior Straw Dogs to Wild Bunch, precisely because the employment of violence, while still defensive. did not have the latter's clarity and point.)
It is of course a standard trick of the intellectuals to take the most banal works of classical culture and to use them as straw men on behalf of the avant-garde. But classical culture is certainly not a monolith; there are varying degrees of merit in classical films as anywhere else. Of course, Mary Poppins, for example, was banal and boring; but contrast it to such fine musicals as My Fair Lady and the magnificent Gigi!
The Golden Age of the cinema was the thirties and forties. It was then that we could delight in Gone With the Wind, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Lady Vanishes; it was then that we could enjoy the sophisticated wit of the Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn movies and the hilarious farce of the Marx Brothers, as well as Mr. Old Curmudgeon himself, W. C. Fields. Indeed, by far the three best movies that I saw in 1972 were revivals from that better age. Two were from GBS: Major Barbara and Pygmalion. It is instructive to compare Pygmalion with the later My Fair Lady, the musical based on the former play. While Pygmalion lacks the famous music, it has far more of the original Shavian bite; also the acting in Pygmalion is far superior: Wendy Hiller is miles ahead of Audrey Hepburn, and even that excellent actor Rex Harrison is eclipsed by the cool austerity and luminous intelligence of Leslie Howard. Major Barbara, despite Shaw's socialist beliefs, is one of the great arguments for capitalism in the history of the film, done with high Shavian wit and intelligence; and then there is the magnificent acting of Robert Morley, in addition to Harrison and Hiller.
And finally, the incomparable English film, The Importance of Being Earnest, perhaps the greatest motion picture ever made. The marvelously witty Oscar Wilde play never flags for a moment, and the acting is high-style perfection, performed by Michael Redgrave, Michael Dennison, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Greenwood, Margaret Rutherford, and the incomparable Dame Edith Evans. There, my friends, was a movie!
But to return to the cinematic slough of 1972. Certainly the best film of 1972 was The Godfather, which we have already hailed in these pages. The Godfather is us classicists' candidate in the award sweepstakes. Already, of course. both the masses and the intelligentsia have spoken: the masses by perceptively making The Godfather the box-office smash of all time; the intellectuals by rejecting it for avant-garde tinsel: the New York Film Critics choosing the eternally boring and morbid Bergman's latest, Cries and Whispers, and the even more pretentious National Society of Film Critics selecting the irrationalist Buñuel's latest offering. (In my view, the only good Bergman was one of his earliest, before he adopted the unbecoming mantle of Profound Thinker: his Smiles of a Summer Night, done as a high style Restoration-type farce. Which is just about the one Bergman movie that the critics don't ooh and aah about.) I have faith, however, that the good old bourgeois Academy will spurn the Continental mish-mash and heap its awards on the truly great Godfather.
The other awards? Best director and best picture awards should usually run together, and so Francis Ford Coppola gets our accolade. For best actor it's for me a tossup between Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in our favorite movie. Brando's acting was a mighty and brilliant tour de force, by far the best Brando in that actor's checkered career. But, on the other hand, Pacino's was a far longer part, and it was a subtle and splendid performance, in which the character changed gradually but vitally in the course of the picture. For best supporting actor, Robert Duvall will probably get the Academy Award for his consigliere in The Godfather (even the New York Film Critics selected Duvall), but far superior are two splendid performances by British actors in Frenzy: either the subtle acting of Alec McCowen as the inspector, or Barry Foster's suave and two-faced villain. For best actress, there is simply no one that I can choose: 1972 was a bad year for actresses. Please, Academy, not the impossibly awkward and pseudo-elfin Liza Minelli in Cabaret! I am afraid, however, that Liza will get the award, purely as a remnant of the still flourishing cult for one of Hollywood's all-time worst singers and actresses: Liza's mom Judy Garland. For supporting actresses, Vivien Merchant's gourmet-loving inspector's wife in Frenzy towers over an indifferent lot.
As for the "ten best" movies, I cannot find the heart to put nine other movies of 1972 on the list. Certainly one, however, is Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy in which the Old Master returns to the fine suspense of his early English period — could it be a coincidence that he returned to England to make the film? If not for Coppola's great achievement, I would surely pick Hitchcock as the best director of the year. Another excellent film was the best of the "caper" genre in years, Peter Yates' The Hot Rock. A fine blend of humor and suspense, the excellent direction blended sterling acting performances from George Segal and Robert Redford, and featured a marvellously funny Zero Mostel as the crooked lawyer (Zero would place as the best supporting actor on my list below McCowen and Foster.)
When we get past The Godfather, Frenzy, and The Hot Rock, we have to reach a bit. The Hospital featured a slashing and witty attack on the large city hospital, highlighted by the typically excellent acting of George C. Scott. I haven't seen Sleuth, but the play was splendid and subtly changing suspense: my only a priori reservation is that Sir Laurence Olivier always tends to overact and chew the scenery, especially in productions that he obviously feels are beneath him. As a result, one is supposed to applaud Olivier's acting tricks and to forget the character he is playing (See, for example, Olivier's performance as the dervish leader in the forgotten Khartoum.) Even in classical films, Olivier sometimes ruins the picture by hamming it up, as he did in Richard III.
Also on the list, but not with very high marks, is Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon. Rohmer is one of the few French directors to continue in the classic tradition, and for this he is ostracized by the French film world. As the founder of the famous French journal Cahiers du Cinema, Rohmer kept insisting throughout the dark days of the avant-garde on the high merits of Hitchcock and even — perhaps going a little too far — of Jerry Lewis! Chloe is one of a fascinating set of "moral tales", in which Rohmer single-handedly restores intelligent and subtle dialogue to its rightful place in the cinema. Unfortunately. Chloe suffers by comparison with the previous Rohmer tales released here, notably Claire's Knee and the superb My Night at Maud's. The problem is that in Chloe both the hero and the heroine are decidedly unappealing, so that one ends up not really giving a damn whether he succumbs to temptation and sleeps with her or not (the problem of all of the Moral Tales.) Still, Chloe in the Afternoon rates as far and away the best foreign picture of the year.
Coming to the bottom of the "eight best" list, we have Play It Again, Sam and They Only Kill Their Masters. Play It is hardly in the same league with Woody Allen's hilarious Bananas, but this clumsy movie does center around a warm and affectionate tribute to the great Bogart, and no picture that does that can be all bad. Masters is a quiet, gentle detective drama. and would scarcely make any best list in a good movie year; but it is an engaging sleeper, and contains a fine, quietly wry performance from James Garner.
What of my fellow critics? Are there any whom I can generally recommend? Not really; there is unfortunately no one who is really aware of the great classical avant-garde struggle, much less wages a consistent battle on behalf of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Even the best are a quivering mass of ad hoc sensibility. Perhaps the soundest of the lot is Paul D. Zimmerman of Newsweek. Unquestionably the worst is the most famous: Judith Crist of New York, who can be depended upon to love the awful movies and hate the good ones. Rex Reed of the Daily News always pitches his critiques on a note of scarcely controlled hysteria. On the other hand, Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice is better than most: being saved by his being a disciple of Rohmer. John Simon of the New Leader is often good, largely because he dislikes almost everything — but not for the right reasons. Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic is often sensible. But all in all, a rum show.
"Work and earn; pay taxes and die." —Old German Proverb.