Making sense of Hollywood -- in print

Special to The Times

April 17, 2008

For the last several years, Richard Schickel has been a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, writing primarily about books on film. His new book, "Film on Paper: The Inner Life of Movies," is a collection of many of those articles, as well as other pieces that appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic and elsewhere.

Schickel, the film critic for Time magazine since 1972, has written some 30 books, most recently a biography of Elia Kazan. He has also produced, written and directed a number of television documentaries, including "The Real Glory: Reconstructing 'The Big Red One,' " about Samuel Fuller's great war film.

It is therefore unsurprising that over the course of this collection, Schickel offers up some thoughts on his profession.

There is the aphoristic: "Movie reviewing is a field that recruits clever souls but never noble ones." The straightforward: "[R]eviews . . . are essentially a form of consumer guidance, written in haste against deadlines and to space." The lamentation: "[M]ovie reviewers are essentially literary people, condemned to summarize in written language a medium that often makes its greatest impact through visual means." The pronouncement: "[History] is the only critic that counts."

My favorite line on the matter, though, is less easy to categorize; after an attempt to mimic Joe Eszterhas' style of "short, punchy paragraphs" in a review of the screenwriter's memoir, Schickel abandons the exercise with an exhausted confession: "I am, by nature, a critic, which means that I like dependent clauses and nervous nuances."

I did not read the pieces here in their original form, but I could imagine coming across his review of, say, Simon Louvish's biography of Mae West and enjoying the nuggets of film history as well as Schickel's perspective on the star's "ability to push you out of a movie, rather than welcome you into it."

And, over breakfast some morning, I suppose I would've been entertained by the elbows he throws at fellow critic David Thomson. Who doesn't like a little blood sport in the Book Review?

Still, even if it had been leavened by the other reviews in the paper, I suspect I would've winced at the bile Schickel has for James Harvey's "Movie Love in the Fifties": "I don't care if Harvey gets off on [Douglas] Sirk." And I doubt I would've been convinced.

Yet I did not read these articles in monthly doses. I read them as a book -- over several sittings, but as one collection. Some writing does not benefit from being plucked from its original context. Gathered together, these essays form not so much a body of criticism or history as a series of finger exercises in dismissal.

That, apparently, was the point -- or partly so. As Schickel notes in his preface, the books he reviewed were " 'occasions' to generalize about this or that aspect of the movies without getting too bogged down in detailed criticism of self-evidently bad books."

There are plenty of bad books in the world and the critic's job can be grim. But if Schickel's intent was, as he suggests, to "sound off on topics that as a regular reviewer" he didn't often get to write about, then at the very least, he could have spent more time engaging the authors who provided his platform.

David Kiehn, author of "Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company," is dismissed in three sentences, and never heard of again. Even when Schickel approves, as he does of Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons' study of censorship "The Dame in the Kimono," he mentions the authors in the early paragraphs before dispensing with them.

In both reviews, it's unclear whether Schickel's extensive historical recaps are taken from his own store of knowledge or summaries of the material the scholars have assembled.

It's not that Schickel doesn't have interesting points about film. His discussion of the Breen Office's rigid censorship procedures is illuminating, and he argues persuasively that "the inability of the movies, when they were at the height of their influence, to deal with sexual issues forthrightly had the effect of imposing an adolescent mind-set about these matters for several generations."

But in the process of putting his thoughts forward, someone usually gets trampled. Of Aram Goudsouzian, biographer of Sidney Poitier, he writes: "He seems not to have noticed that one of the essences of male stardom is sexual reluctance."

I'm intrigued by that notion, but I'm not sure why Goudsouzian was expected to share such a point of view.

Schickel readily describes his tone as "more tolerant of Hollywood's peculiar ways than it is of the ineptitude of those who comment on it," and "Film on Paper" bears this out. As we leave behind an early chapter on genre studies and move past star bios to books about the real insiders -- the directors, studio heads and Jack Valenti -- Schickel's position as gatekeeper becomes more and more pronounced.

Throughout the book, he draws on his own encounters with Hollywood players to bolster his opinions. He could open the gate and welcome us through it. Instead, he does the looking and reports back as he sees fit.

Of the writer Gary Giddins, Schickel declares with admiration, "You read Giddins and you start adding to your Netflix queue." But that is not the case with "Film on Paper." Schickel appears less interested in inciting curiosity than in the opportunity to "sound off."

Like Mae West, he may imagine he's inviting us into the movies, but instead, he ends up pushing us out.

Liz Brown has written for Bookforum, Frieze Magazine and the New York Times Book Review.

Film on Paper The Inner Life of Movies Richard Schickel Ivan R. Dee: 304 pp., $18.95 paper

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