Schlock jocks

Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a film critic for Time. His most recent book is "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

IN 1968 -- America’s year of living dangerously on every front -- Pauline Kael published a seminal piece of film criticism in Harper’s magazine called “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” In most respects, it was a typical Kael production: 42 seemingly endless pages of dither and blither, good ideas and half-baked ones all mixed up in her characteristic edge-of-hysteria manner. Her essential point was, however, unexceptionable: “Perhaps the most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture.”

In the darkness of the movie theater, she argued, “the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses.” Never mind that the examples with which she buttressed her case were absurd (her taste in individual movies was wonky). Nor was she the first critic to observe that many of the movies we love best subvert the official, prize-giving culture (Otis Ferguson, Robert Warshow and Manny Farber preceded her). But she addressed this issue more directly than they had. And coming at a moment when intellectually hoity-toity America was beginning to take movies seriously as an art form, her piece liberated their silly side -- and many wonderful films from the “guilty pleasure” closet.

But after her, le deluge. Or, to be more specific, the video revolution, which, combined with the rise of film schools, film festivals and academic film gabble, spawned ... the Film Geek. Or, alternatively, the Vault Nerd. He looked like any other accumulating weirdo -- pallid and overweight behind Coke-bottle glasses -- but he (the Geek/Nerd was almost always male) was somehow scarier. For he was talking about something most people care about, not stamps or coins. He was prating obsessively about what had been lost -- directors’ cuts, studio-snuffed endings, mythically unreleased films -- and also about what he had found in the film culture’s sub-basement: Bollywood, anime, chop-socky, wire-fu, women in prison, or WIP, pictures and Mexican wrestling movies. He had nothing to say about “Grand Illusion” or “Children of Paradise,” which he regarded as being so day-before-yesterday in elegance of expression and so lacking in transgressive spritz.

Here was a confusion of “art” and “trash” quite unanticipated by Kael or any of the rest of us happily restoring “His Girl Friday” and “Out of the Past” to the collective movie consciousness and reveling in “Chinatown’s” expansion of that consciousness. Here was a peculiarly virulent form of reverse snobbery in which a poverty of means, of formal artistry and of sober critical response guaranteed a film’s lowlife purity of intent. The more a movie subverted the notion of film as a mass medium, the harder it was to impute traditional values to it and the more treasurable it became. This is a short step away from Quentin Tarantino and the idiot savantery of his video-store clerkship.


I’m not arguing that the schlock impulse can’t transform a few films into something like movie art as Kael defined it. Tarantino’s own “Pulp Fiction” proves that. So does “Fargo” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In our enervated movie age, you have to look for energy wherever you can find it. But mostly, our trash is of the trailer-park variety, appropriately collectible only by the garbage trucks.

It’s the useful business of “The Film Snob’s Dictionary” to make cool, often genuinely witty fun of bad movies and the faux icons who make them. One might finish this collection of alphabetically arranged material and think, you should never send a nonbook to do a real book’s job. On the other hand, one may be pleased to welcome a good start on a huge task. We’re not talking the Augean stables here. We’re talking toxic waste on a worldwide scale.

But David Kamp and Lawrence Levi have a problem, which might be summed up as carelessness, an inability to firmly define their territory. For example, they muddle the classic avant-garde tradition and the newer one. Almost from the beginning of the medium, there has been an elitist audience for a nonnarrative, nonstudio cinema -- for Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon,” Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s “L’Age d’Or,” the collected works of Stan Brakhage and others. These filmmakers belonged more to the art galleries than to theaters, and they certainly don’t belong to the chop-socky crowd today, who as far as I can tell have shown no interest in their work (at least in comparison to their avidity for the “witchie-poo” works of Barbara Steele). They are a digression.

So is -- and I say this with more regret -- King Vidor. He was, I think, the greatest of the American silent-picture directors, and he has a nice, if critically inadequate, entry all to himself in “The Film Snob’s Dictionary.” But if you are going to mention him, don’t you have to mention his great contemporaries -- Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Dziga Vertov? I think so; in for a penny, in for a pound. Or, alternatively, fold your hand and grab a beer.


So it goes. “Detour” (and its director, Edgar G. Ulmer) is not here, though it is an authentic masterpiece rescued from the trash heap by the cine-snobs (they do have their virtues). But Richard Widmark is present because he is alleged to be “snob beloved.” Which is fine with me -- I belove him too. But why is he here? Because of that insane giggle when he pushed the little old lady down the stairs in “Kiss of Death”? OK, I’ll buy that. But don’t you have to show how that moment’s madness “influences” the equally divine lunacy of Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi and Dennis Hopper? I think so.

Occasionally, the authors oblige, as in the case of Wallace Beery, a popular star-grotesque of the 1930s and 1940s. Now widely unremembered, he is mentioned prominently in the Coen brothers’ snob favorite, “Barton Fink.” (So he rates a learned commentary here, which I think is a good thing.) Modern film is rich in such references to the medium’s past, so full of “homages.” They make the snobs happy when they are the first to chortlingly recognize them. And, frankly, their niggling absurdity tickles me too.

In the end, film snobbery isn’t about having even a primitive critical sensibility; it is about possessing arcane information, holding it close and using it to exercise a pathetic sense of superiority over less obsessively informed but possibly more intellectually and emotionally balanced moviegoers. It is also, of course, a way of setting oneself in opposition to the smug bourgeoisie. By defending the indefensible splatter pic through incomprehensible exegesis, you become the Nietzsche of the niche market.

Which brings us to this final joke on everyone: Movies are largely ceasing to be a mass medium and are becoming a collection of cults (of which the snob crowd is but one). The trend is an old one, beginning with the advent of television, which cost movies three-quarters of their audience in the 1950s. But now it is reaching a new crisis. You can see it in this year’s best picture Oscar nominees, only one of which (“Munich”) even aspired to reassemble the old audience. You can see it in the steady (and I think irreversible) decline in theatrical attendance. This means film snobs are really no different from, say, the “opera queens,” once part of a vital mass audience and now a handful of devotees in frenzied pursuit of that bootleg recording of the Lisbon “Traviata.” The same is true of all the formerly popular arts and media, even television in the cable age.


But to speak purely of movies, this is not what Kael, or any of us who care about the medium, had in mind. She hoped in her loopy way to broaden the audience for film by proposing that the audience, responding to the sometimes divine, always enigmatic interpenetration of trash and art, would broaden and re-energize itself. That did not happen.

And it will not happen. We are now many audiences in search of the increasingly obscure objects of our disparate desires. Which means that “The Film Snob’s Dictionary,” nice try though it may be, is not only too much and too little, it is also too late.