Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Schickel vs. Schickel

The recent disparaging attack on the critical profession made by Richard Schickel was pretty astounding; even more so for those who (like me) still consider Schickel’s 1968 article one of the best and most clear-eyed manifestos of adventurous film criticism. Here’s the Schickel I prefer:

It seems to me that all criticism is an effort at self-integration, and while a plausible case could be made that such efforts are harder to bring off in our fragmented and alienation-prone times, it is difficult to believe that the movie critic is uniquely cursed. All of the arts are, and for some time have been, in a state of flux bordering on anarchy. Is it harder for the movie critic to leap from Andy Warhol to Ingmar Bergman than it is for the art critic to leap from Warhol do Willem De Kooning? I don’t think so. There are few absolutes left in life or in art, and for the critic this ought to be less a burden than a challenge. It makes his work more of an adventure, perhaps more of a creative experience than it may have been in more settled times, when a recourse to academic rules of artistic composition could settle more arguments then they now do.

It seems to me that the modern critic is, in fact, luckier than most of his contemporaries, for he is regularly forced to sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and coherently organize his responses to a wide variety of stimuli. There is no better integrative experience available, and the critic's good fortune consists precisely in being obliged frequently to undergo it. If, at the outset, he finds it painful, he will soon develop his spiritual and intellectual muscles to the point where he can accomplish his particular yoga exercises with relative ease. Or he will cease to be a critic. Or he will be such a poor one that he will have little influence.

(Richard Schickel, Introduction [in:] Richard Schickel, John Simon (ed.), Film 67/68: An Anthology by the National Society of Film Critics, New York 1968, pp. 13–14.)


  1. Well, I for one wasn’t all that astounded at Schickel’s disparaging comments, even – or especially – in view of the fragment that you quoted – and in view of the fact that it was written more than 40 years ago (at a time when he was still relatively young and idealistic; is it really that surprising that he should have turned a bit more sour at age 77...?). And this is not because I have a disparaging view of the critical profession myself; indeed, I happen to belong to the minority of non-reviewers that has respect and even admiration for reviewers. This is mainly because of their ability to go on with the “yoga exercises” described so well by Schickel in the last paragraph; to be able to respond to a wide variety of films (or other works of art), over the choice of which they can have but little power, and to sort out those responses in readable prose on the ever-forbidding blank sheet of paper; and, most of all, to be able to keep up the interest in (or even love of) their chosen field all year round, year in, year out – something hard to fathom for an amateur film buff such as myself (who usually follows periods of intense movie-watching with periods when I don’t even care to think about them that much).

    Unlike many people seem to think, this is not something that just about everybody could pull off, only most of us have better things to do with our time: it actually requires a rare combination of skills and qualities – openness, responsiveness, organization, writing skills, sheer stamina, etc. – to do it continuously, and all the more so to do it successfully. And as Schickel’s closing remarks imply, the “lucky” position of a reviewer is actually a two-edged sword: for those who have this combination, it is indeed a blessing; but for those who don’t have it, it can be a tragedy – all the more so as it may take years to find out whether you really have what it takes to make a critic, and the self-deceit of simply needing some time to develop “the knack” is one that is easy to fall into. As Schickel says, those who don’t develop it either turn out to be poor critics or cease to be critics altogether and turn to other lines of work; but since the career choices for someone whose CV consists mainly of a decade or two of reviewing are limited, I fear that the former group may be the larger one. Indeed, this is the impression one gets simply by following the reviews regularly pretty much anywhere...

    Now, I’m not sufficiently familiar with Schickel’s writing to pass judgment, but I take it from his standing that he doesn’t himself belong to the “poor critics” category; but even if his reviewing is above the average, I find it quite possible that at some point of his career he simply realized that while he’s reasonably good at what he does, he nevertheless doesn’t love what he’s doing – but at that point it was already too late to turn back. And even if this isn’t the case with Schickel, it certainly seems to be with a lot of other reviewers – and it is this that makes the field of reviewing as a whole so sad to contemplate sometimes. As Pauline Kael put it, anyone who thinks that writing criticism is easy and writing poetry is hard should try both lines and find out why there are so many poets, so few critics (a statement that nowadays, when “everyone’s a critic”, should probably be corrected to “good poets” and “good critics”).

  2. Unfortunately, the “reviewing-is-easy” myth persists in our culture and leads to all too many people getting into that profession. It also seems to me that within the critical profession there’s a different kind of myth – namely that anyone who has become a critic is by definition the kind of “ideal critic” that I described in the beginning of the first part of my comment: someone who can respond to the widest variety of films and is able to sort out and clearly express his or her responses. Instead of allowing reviewers to specialize in writing about films that are best suited for their temperament, films that they really care about, pretty much everyone is forced to write about pretty much everything (there are expections, of course, but at least a regular reviewer simply can’t be too picky). The combined result of these two myths is the sorry state of reviewing that you have recently described in your Polish-language blog: people try to invent responses to films they don’t naturally respond to and to make sense of something that went completely over their head, and in so doing they resort to clichés, stock responses, hackneyed expressions.

    The critical institution is, I think, in need of a serious reevaluation, and there should be some discussion about how it could be changed so as to get out of the current situation – so that, simply put, a lesser amount of what is published wouldn’t be just a waste of time for both the reviewer and the reader. And as you know yourself, such discussion can’t begin if no-one dares to ”cast the first stone” – to say some things that aren’t so nice to hear, to burst some carefully preserved bubbles, and to step on some overtly sensitive toes. Schickel’s remarks may not have been in the most constructive vein, but if they manage to provoke some debate – even of such fundamental matters as ”the function of reviewing anything”, to use his words – I think they were worth saying.

  3. P. S. It might amuse you to know that Schickel was born on the same date as W. C. Fields, 10 February (according to some sources; Fields’ dates of birth seem to be as numerous as his pseudonyms, as other sources cite his birthday as 29 January or 9 April), as I found out when googling for his year of birth. Try to imagine his remarks said in Fields’ characteristic drawl, and perhaps they will appear more agreeable: like Fields’ pithy aphorisms (“Anyone who hates babies and dogs can’t be all bad”), they are certainly one-sided and overtly cynical – but there’s some truth to ’em as well :-)

  4. Thanks so much for those very insightful remarks! I agree most with the part about compulsive reviewing of "everything" and the cliches and stock-responses that the critics resort to so often if faced with the kind of material or genre that they don't really know that well. I find myself cringing from reviewing sci-fi movies, for example, because even though I enjoy some of them tremendously (the new STAR TREK, the old TRON), I'm affraid that I don't have enough knowledge of the field to truly evaluate them and dissect their various layers.

    I think that a fearless critic is a reckless one. And ultimately a poor one, as well. I strongly believe that this is a profession or a calling that recquires at leats one part humility to nine parts audacity. A critic who places him or herself way above the work that he or she describes, and pretends to have cracked it open without any effort - is the one least interesting for me to read. That's why I mind so much of what the KRYTYKA POLITYCZNA boys are doing. They seem to be talking about movies as if the works were specimens in a bubble, totally dissectible and devoid of any mystery or any elusive quality whatsoever. I think the thing they care least about is beauty -- and no critic can be good without caring for this one particular thing.

    Schickel's remarks are sour and hurtful, but I understand their source: namely, bitterness that comes with age and a natural dismay that a man raised on certain standards of writing has to feel when confronted with the amount of trash to be found on line. Just like I don't expect to find a Henry James review that would praise a pulp novel, I don't expect to find Schickel celebrating the diversity of the blogosphere.

  5. PS. Here's an interesting opinion: